"IS HE DEAD?" through Feb. 7, Hale Centre Theatre, 3333 S. Decker Lake Drive, West Valley City (801-984-9000 or hct.org)
WEST VALLEY CITY — Before heading out to see “Is He Dead?” at Hale Centre Theatre, audiences may want to hop online and do a minute or two of research on the French painter Jean-Francois Millet. Not that there is much truth to the madcap characterization of the early 19th-century painter, but it will give them a close-up look at the paintings referenced in the comedy, most notably “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners.”
American author and humorist Mark Twain penned the script in 1898, but nothing really came of it until 105 years later. The script was finally published in 2003 after a Twain scholar found the play in the archives at the University of California, Berkeley. Later adapted by David Ives, “Is He Dead?” made its Broadway debut in 2007.
Twain uses real-life painter Millet and paints him, pardon the pun, as a starving artist in a room full of his beautiful masterpieces he’s unable to sell. With an offhand remark from a would-be buyer, Millet and his friends realize that his art would become much more valuable if he were dead. But what about the small issue of not then being around to enjoy the financial fruits of his labor? Fake the death, naturally.
And so they do. They devise a story, a disease and an alter-ego for Millet: Daisy, Millet’s widowed sister.
What could happen?
Just about everything — mistaken identity, prat falls, love triangles and enough physical comedy to leave one exhausted at the end of the evening. Twain’s script is just a little slow to take off, but bear with it; Act 2 is a race to the finish line.
The cast, directed by Eric R. Jensen, is up to the challenge. It’s a hefty ensemble piece, meaning the burden of forward momentum (perfectly timed entrances, rapid-fire banter, etc.) is shared fairly equally among the cast.
Millet’s three friends (played at this performance by David Martin, Justin Bruse and Greg Larsen) turn in energetic performances. There were times, though, the energy felt frenetic in pace — leaving garbled lines and breathless deliveries. That said, this show is more of a marathon for the performers, and the pacing should settle in.
Newcomer Ben Abbott handles the shoes (and the heels) of Millet/Widow Tillou, and he does so very well. His physical comedy is well-played, but his facial expressions of shock, dismay, disbelief and embarrassment are scene-stealers.
Suzanne Carling’s costumes and Jennifer Stapley-Taylor’s sets help set the scene along with wigs by Trisha Ison and Krissa Lent.
People often think doing comedy is easy — nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an awful lot of work to have this much fun.
Erica Hansen was the theater editor at the Deseret News for more than three years. An area performer, she was also the original host of the radio program "Showtune Saturday Night."