Resurrected from an archive by a diligent Mark Twain scholar and re-worked by David Ives a few years back, Is He Dead?—currently playing at Pioneer Theatre Company—is a broad, sloppy farce packed with Twain’s signature wit.
Jean-Francois Millet (Michael Keyloun) is a genius painter who owes money all over 19thcentury Paris. As conventional wisdom dictates, the value of an artist’s work increases dramatically upon his or her death. So, naturally, Millet’s faithful students hit upon the idea of faking his death and holding a sale.
Hilarious misunderstandings, close calls and cross-dressing ensue. Millet dons a dress and a wig to pose as his own sister; he wards off the sexual advances of his creditor and his fiance’s father. He has funny sidekicks, each with his or her own distinct, funny accent. There are numerous allusions to Twain’s more famous works, good for knowing chuckles from the initiated.
The themes of the value of art and the harsh realities of the marketplace with which artists are forced to contend are best understood in the context of Twain’s life at the time of the play’s creation. Recently ruined financially by bad investments, Twain turned to the stage to make a little scratch. It didn’t work out, but as this show attests, he didn’t lose his sense of humor over it.
I mean, come on: A play about an artist not appreciated until after his death, not finding a stage until he’s most of a century in the ground? I think Twain would appreciate the irony.