Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Is He Dead?
It took Mark Twain 109 years to get his first play produced on Broadway. Of course, that's because the 1898 script was never unearthed until 2003, and another four years passed while acclaimed comic playwright David Ives added a little modern polish, while still keeping the setting in 1848 France.
The Repertory Theatre's Edward Coffield directs, coming up with a great cast and leading them to beautifully conceived performances. Zac McMillan is a goofy, sincere delight as Jean Francois Millet, based on the real painterhere an impoverished artist who must give his finished canvases to his landlords as a form of rent. On top of that, a scheming art dealer takes Millet's other paintings for centimes on the franc, to keep the unknown genius in a state of desperate creativity and, of course, to line the dealer's pockets.
The script, even with Mr. Ives' fixes, is still a little of this and a little of that: farce, melodrama, and social commentary. But it's great fun to watch this young cast at work, with precision and confidence. Joe Cella is a towering comic figure (literally and figuratively) as a reluctant art buyer, and appears in several other roles as well (you may see a slight echo of the great Kenneth Mars in his portrayal of the King of France). But after the art connoisseur leaves, empty handed, Millet's three friends work to make him rich by making him "dead."
Jack Zanger, Jacob Cange, and John Fisher form that trio, playing exuberant stereotypes: an American, an Irishman, and a Germanand each shows great comic panache as the plot thickens. Natalia Walker and Molly McCaskill are the beautiful girlfriends who get drawn into the action, with Ms. McCaskill (like Mr. McMillan) ultimately cross-dressing, and growing nicely comical later on.
But the biggest surprise may be in Ben Ritchie's turn as the greedy art dealer. The actor is known for his extremely dry performances, but here (as Bastien Andre) he transforms into a villain straight out of high melodrama, complete with black cape and top hat. And that unexpected interpretation plays just as beautifully even if it's your first time seeing the actor on stage.
The show also features very strong performances, as always, from Jennifer Quinn, Nicole Angeli, and Timothy Callahan. If you remember the stylized humor of Tom Sawyer, full of satirical schemes and observational humor, and can further imagine it all being transplanted to an artist's colony in 19th century France, well, that's what Mark Twain has given us here.
It travels well, though, and director Coffield makes sure that every interaction has realism and comic resonance as he encourages each actor to find his or her own mad overtones on stage.
Is He Dead?, through August 20, 2017, at the Ivory Theatre, 7622 Michigan Ave., St. Louis, MO 63111. For more information visit www.stlshakespeare.org.
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