In Is He Dead?, cross-dressing and mistaken identities earn hearty laughs

Artists tend to be praised and valued far more after their deaths than during their lifetimes, and clearly this paradox was not lost on Mark Twain, who wrote a play about Jean-Francois Millet — a real, famous and very brilliant painter of his time — called Is He Dead? In this purely fictional version of the artist's life, Millet's work just isn't selling, and both he and the father of Marie, the woman he loves, are being dunned by a ruthless capitalistic art dealer, Bastien Andre. Millet's apprentice friends convince him to fake his death, which he does, reappearing on the Paris scene as his own sister, Daisy.

Twain scholars have long known about this work, but it got little attention until it was unearthed — or re-unearthed — among the author's papers at Berkeley by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. She pushed for a Broadway production, and the show premiered in 2007. It's now in metro Denver thanks to Creede Repertory Theatre, a troupe that's been doing professional work in that tiny mining town for over four decades. Although there had long been cross-fertilization, with Denver artists working in Creede and a few Creede actors appearing here, now the company's stars are popping up in venues as varied as Miners Alley, the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. And director Maurice LaMee started bringing entire productions to the Denver area four years ago.

Is He Dead? is not a work of earth-shattering importance. It's a farcical comedy involving cross-dressing, mistaken identities and caricaturish national stereotypes — Millet's close friends are a Limburger-eating German, a red-faced drunken Irishman and a brash guy from Chicago — but Twain being Twain, it also has sublimely comic moments as well as the occasional trenchant observation on art, fame and usury. The really nice thing is that you get to laugh your head off while watching, then impress your literary friends later with your close knowledge of Twain's oeuvre. The script has been adapted by David Ives, and there's no way of knowing exactly which bits are his doing, which are Twain's, and which are the brainchildren of director Michael S. Perlman. But nothing about the evening feels dated.

The cast is strong. Steven Cole Hughes's Millet is the backbone of the production. He spends most of the evening in drag, and does so deliciously. Although he wears a frilly dress and a ridiculous golden wig, he doesn't give us the usual mincing walk, smeary clown lipstick or high-pitched giggle — though his long, drawn-out, coltish, rocking attempt at curtseying did have the woman behind me almost puking with laughter. But for the most part, this Millet is sort of earnest, and trying hard to remember who he's supposed to be. (Daisy tends to lapse into regular guydom at the worst moments and has a regrettable habit of forgetting how many children she's had: "Slathers," she declaims airily.) Then, as Millet finds himself surrounded by suitors and offered jewelry and flowers, he begins to realize the power of the skirt and becomes increasingly arrogant. Hughes gets great support from Patrick Du Laney, whose ghastly German accent as Dutchy is probably exactly what Twain would have wanted; Chad Afanador — okay, his O-Shaughnessy goes a bit too over the top for my taste; and John DiAntonio, who is a very lively Chicago. Everyone who pops on and off the stage in smaller roles is excellent, particularly John Arp, usually so teddy-bearish, warm and avuncular, having the time of his life as skin-crawly Andre, and the always riveting Caitlin Wise, who is definitely way over the top much of the time, but seems so damn sincere about it that you can't help seconding her every ridiculous whim.

The evening starts off a little slow, with far too much general talk and exposition. But just relax and settle in, because soon this production will take off like an express train — and you really don't want to miss the laughs.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman