‘Is He Dead?’ at Providence Players of Fairfax by Kim Moeller


Farce: Highly exaggerated situations, improbable plot twists, physical humor, deliberate absurdity or nonsense, and broadly stylized performances.

Is He Dead?, the latest production from Providence Players of Fairfax (PPF), is the very definition of farce, and an exceptionally funny one at that. Cross-dressing, star-crossed lovers, mistaken identities, and madcap shenanigans—standard elements of the genre—combine to create a comical take on fame and the art world. The play, written by Mark Twain in 1898 and adapted for the modern stage by American Playwright David Ives, was first performed on Broadway in 2007 to generally good reviews.

Patrick David (The Widow Tillou) and Larry Craven (Bastien Andre). Photo by Chip Gertzog.

Patrick David (The Widow Tillou) and Larry Craven (Bastien Andre). Photo by Chip Gertzog.

Twain concocted an imaginary tale about real-life 19th century painter Jean-Francois Millet. As the play opens, Millet is deeply in debt to a nefarious art dealer and moneylender. No one is buying any of his paintings and, as one potential buyer puts it as she declines to purchase because the artist is still living, for an artist, “the deader he is, the better he is.” Millet’s friends devise a plan for Millet to stage his own death and thereby increase his fame as well as the price of his paintings.

Longtime PFF troupe member Patrick David, as the French artist Millet, shines when his character disguises himself as his imaginary twin sister “Daisy Tillou” in order to keep his secret safe. While we’re familiar with the typical humor that results from a man in a woman’s clothing, David portrays a curiosity and vulnerability that we don’t often see in more common bull-in-a-china-shop interpretations. His Millet, while in love with his girlfriend Marie (Liz Mykietyn), is still charmed that Daisy is wanted by other men. David’s comic timing and skill with physical humor, as well as with a hoop skirt, are critical to the role.

The actors playing Millet’s friends and students—Craig Geoffrion’s scheming Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner, Thane Tuttle as the stinky cheese loving Hans “Dutchy” von Bismarck, and Christopher Schwartz as the frenetic Phelim O’Shaughnessy—are responsible for much of the show’s success. They are, quite simply, fun to watch and fun to listen to. They can make even some of the most groan-inducing lines seem fresh.

The entire ensemble is solid. As the also-indebted Papa Leroux, John Barclay Burns looks and sounds the part of the cultured Frenchman who must consider marrying off his daughter Marie to the villain (Larry Craven) in order to have his debt forgiven. Danine Welsh as Cecile Leroux, the suspicious woman in love with Millet’s friend Chicago, and Donna Naybor as the art buyer make the most of their roles combining both attitude and accents to create convincing characters. Barbara Gertzog, Betsy Hansen, Susan Kaplan, Cheryl Sinsabaugh, and the Snows—Robbie, Amanda, and Nick—round out the talented cast.

The show’s production team deserves great applause. Director Beth Hughes-Brown successfully managed the challenge of maintaining the broad humor without letting it go over the top. She drew consistently strong performances from her actors and kept the staging controlled – despite having a large number of actors in a fairly small space for Act I.

L to R: Susan Kaplan (Madame Caron), Patrick David (The Widow Tillou), Barbara Gertzog (Madame Bathilde), and Liz MyKietyn (Marie). Photo by Chip Gertzog.

L to R: Susan Kaplan (Madame Caron), Patrick David (The Widow Tillou), Barbara Gertzog (Madame Bathilde), and Liz MyKietyn (Marie). Photo by Chip Gertzog.

The sets are incredible. They are as good as many seen on professional company (read higher budget) stages. Set Designer Raedun de Alba, Set Decoratiors Paul Hennesy and Mike Matheisen, the set construction and painting crews, as well as Prop Master Andra Whitt, Costume Designer Robbie Snow and the makeup and hair team are to be congratulated for successfully transporting us to another time and place. Technical Director/Lighting Designer Chip Gertzog, Sound Designer Jimmy Gertzog, Stage Manager Beth Harrison, and the entire stage and technical crews did quality work with a challenging, ever-moving show. It truly takes a village to create good theater and  Providence Players have assembled a terrific village.

Ultimately, the question really isn’t, “Is He Dead?” The question is, “How quickly can you get your tickets so you won’t miss this wild ride of a show that showcases the best of what our local theater community has to offer?”

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

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Is He Dead? plays through June 15, 2013 at the James Lee Community Center – 2855 Annandale Road, in Falls Church, VA. For tickets, purchase them online or at the door.

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