Replete with artistic puns and a healthy dose of cynicism, Mark Twain’s recently rediscovered two-act play Is He Dead? — now onstage at Theater Schmeater — cleverly focuses on the age-old phenomenon of the artist who only becomes famous after his death.
Facing both penury and obscurity, painter Jean-François Millet (Brandon Felker) settles upon a creative solution to his troubles. He fakes his own death, whichh causes a spike in the prices of his paintings while simultaneously getting a Snidely Whiplash look-alike moneylender (J.D. Lloyd) off his back for good.
As the allegedly late artist, Felker seems to have a lot more fun following his “demise” when he returns as his character’s alter ego, a fictitious twin sister who has arrived to cash in on her brother’s suddenly lucrative estate. His evolution from utterly uncomfortable in his pink satin gown and spindly high-heels to demurely fussing about whether his nose is perfectly powdered is a delight to watch.
Since this is a late-19th century script (written in 1898 but not produced on Broadway until 2007), our hero is joined by the inevitable gang of ethnic stereotypes reduced to mere accents and inclinations. There are a Limberger cheese-loving German called “Dutchy” (Lantz Wagner), a pugilistic Irishman named O’Shaughnessy, and a guy with a peculiar name that everyone just refers to as “Chicago” (Zach Adair) — coz dat’s where ‘es from, see? Improbably, this trio represents Millet’s greatest admirers and best buddies.
As a quartet, Felker and Friends gave the audience the loudest performances imaginable. It is was if director Douglas Staley rehearsed the four men by placing them in opposite corners of an airplane hanger somewhere on Boeing’s noisiest property, then transferred them directly to Theater Schmeater’s highly intimate theater space with no adjustment in volume.
Their constant shouting, their aggressive capering that threatened to launch the actors into the third row should they stumble, their shrieking Monty Python falsettos — it was all far too much for either the script or the theater space.
There’s farce. There’s the cartoonish comedy of The Three Stooges. And then there’s something far beyond the pale that registers as mere noise and meaningless flailing.
Unfortunately, that’s what this gaggle of arty bros presented every time they were together onstage. It was astonishing, almost a sort of avant garde commentary on something too complex to be articulated by human language. The throbbing headache that their 80-decibel dialogue engendered was perhaps an intentional symbol of the pain of the artist to communicate across the ages.
Nah, it was just insanely over-the-top.
On the subtler end of the acting scale were Mike Jones, who cheerfully tackled a clutch of goofy roles ranging from an effete British art collector to the King of France; Buddy Mahoney as the hang-dog debtor Leroux; and a pair of S&M inclined mademoiselles, Lisa Branham and Margaretta Lantz. They collectively provided a tonic to the scene-chewing and I-see-my-pal-four-blocks-away hollering that invariably ensued at the most unwarranted moments.
Is He Dead? runs through Oct. 13 at Theater Schmeater. Tickets are $15-23. For tickets, visit www.schmeater.org. For earplugs and aspirin, stop by any drug store in Capitol Hill.