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Mark Twain’s Hilarious Farce Is He Dead? at the Little Theatre of Alexandria

 Mark Twain’s Hilarious Farce Is He Dead? at the Little Theatre of Alexandria

Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?
The Little Theatre of Alexandria
Jordan Wright
May 29, 2024
Special to The Zebra

Sarah Keisler, Lanny Warkentien (Photo/Matthew Randall)

How to pump up the audience and give them a taste of what’s to come? Open with the soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and, bam! We’re in Paris. That’s how Director Joey Pierce prepares the audience for Mark Twain’s Is He Dead?  Set in the Barbizon area, it’s a zany comedy about how an artists’ works are worth buckets more dough when he’s dead. The trick is convincing buyers that the artist is truly dead and not just on the Barbary Coast, which is their big, thankfully unchallenged, lie. Three friends and the artist himself, all very much in debt and needing money to escape jail, ignominy and poverty, conjure a way out of their fraught situation, offering up lots of absurdities for us to gobble up.

Mark Twain (pen name of the great American writer, Samuel Clemens) represents all the irreverence and general societal nose-thumbing I found exquisitely redeeming as a young reader. Like me, many of his fans are unfamiliar with his little-known foray into playwriting. This recently unearthed comedy should set the record straight and serve to bring new fans to his work.

Hanlon Smith-Dorsey, Brendan Chaney, Zachary Litwiller, Lanny Warkentien (Photo/Matthew Randall)

Discovered by Twain scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, in an archive of his works at UC Berkeley, the farce was brought to Broadway in 2007 with the help of contemporary playwright, David Ives, who adapted the production.

It tells a fictional story of the famed pastoral painter, Jean-Francois Millet (Lanny Warkentien), who is in love with the beautiful Marie Leroux (Sarah Keisler) but in debt to Bastien Andre (Kirk Lambert). If Millet can’t come up with the dough, Andre wants to marry Marie. The action opens at Millet’s studio where he and his pals, Agamemnon Buckner “Chicago” (Brendan Chaney), Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Zachary Litwiller) and Hans von Bismarck “Dutchy” (Hanlon Smith Dorsey) are plotting to get Millet out of imminent danger. This trio of copains are as disparate as could ever be conjured up. Here’s where the plot is hatched to fake Millet’s death. They will rake up the prices and invite Basil Thorpe (Justin Beland), a villainous British art dealer art dealer to return. Naturellement, nothing goes as planned and that’s when the fun begins.

They invite him to return on the pretext of announcing the terrible news and he falls for it, buying up all the paintings at hugely inflated prices. Disguising Millet as Millet’s grieving widow is the first step and Warkentien steals the show in a hot pink satin frock with over-sized paniers. I thought of Milton Berle and Jonathan Winters – both comedians well-known for their cross-dressing characters. Two elderly ladies, Mdme. Bathilde (Beverly Gholston) and Mdme. Caron (Anne Shively), friends of the artist who know nothing about the switcheroo, come for tea with the “widow” and pass off “her” odd behavior as a woman grieving the loss of her husband.

Kirk Lambert, Brendan Chaney, Lenny Warkentien, Sarah Keisler, Alayna Theunissen (Photo/Matthew Randall)

From a humble artist’s atelier in the first act to a lavish set design of a drawing room in Act Two of the now, well-to-do widow’s 19th century maison attended by her nutty butler Charlie (Justin Beland), we are privy to a sea change in Millet’s fortunes. Drawing on burlesque this witty comedy exposes the perils and deceptions of the art world.

This cast clicks, but it’s Brendan Chaney as Chicago and Lanny Warkentien who are both the glue and the energy that take this farce to the next level.

Great fun and a terrific summer romp!

With the cast in multiple roles and a slew of costume changes. Alayna Theunissen as Cecile Leroux; Leo Mairena as Papa Leroux; Lanny Warkentien as Jean-Francois Millet and the Widow Tillou; Beverly Gholston as Madame Bathilde and Emperor of Russia; Anne Shively as Madame Caron and the Sultan of Turkey; Justin Beland as Basil Thorpe, Reporter, Charlie and the King of France. Understudy Justin von Stein plays Millet/Tillou on May 22, 31and June 1.

Original adaption by David Ives; Set Design by Matt Liptak; Lighting Design by Adam Konowe; Sound Design by Alan Wray and Christine McShay; Costume Design by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley; Makeup and Hair Design by Sue Pinkman.

Through June 8th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314. For tickets and information visit www.The Little or call the box office at 703 683-5778.

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