The three great D’s of comedic theater grace Mark Twain’s long-lost 1898 play “Is He Dead?”: death, disguise and debauchery. Unpublished and unproduced until 2003, when Shelley Fisher Fishkin ’71 GRD ’77 found it in the archives of the Mark Twain papers at University of California at Berkeley, “Is He Dead?” tells the tale of a brilliant-but-starving French painter, Jean-François Millet (Peter Kaufman ’12), who cannot sell his landscapes for love or money. In all the high style of farce, his three friends — an American, Chicago (Hunter Wolk ’12), a German, Dutchy (Alexis del Vecchio ’11), and an Irishman, Phelim (Arden Rogow-Bales ’10) — convince him to fake his own death, in the hopes that his paintings will appreciate in value.
With exuberant slapstick and thick accents, the characters are caricatures of stereotypes. Kaufman comes to life as an unexpectedly attractive Daisy, whom he seems to inhabit much more fully than he does the somber François. Jesse Williams ’12, who plays a variety of characters, from a snobby art-buyer to a butler, delivers an impressive array of accents and personas. As the foppish Andre, a heartless usurer, Stan Seiden ’10 hits just the right note for an exaggerated Frenchman: full of over-the-top “Oui, oui!”’s and nasal laughter, he comically mugs for an imaginary camera — and intimates that he, too, is in on the joke.
Perhaps because of the spare and static set where they perform, the whole cast exudes boundless energy, alternately buoying a dated script into modernity and overwhelming it. Despite — or perhaps because of — the ragtag air of the production, director Kaley Sullivan’s ’10 rendition of “Is He Dead?” manages to bring the play, with its scruffy charm, solidly into the 21st century.