Mark Twain’s ‘Is He Dead?,’ at Summit Playhouse, is a wild comedy

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From left, Brian Madden, Justin Montanaro, Dale Monroe and Zachary Conner co-star in “Is He Dead?” at The Summit Playhouse, through May 11.

An impoverished Parisian painter, Jean François Millet, has interested a rich Englishman named Thorpe in his work. And Millet is desperate to make a sale.

The only problem is, Millet is still alive.

Thorpe believes that “a painter is so much more talented after he’s died,” he says in Mark Twain’s clever and frequently manic farce, “Is He Dead?,” which is currently being presented at The Summit Playhouse. “In fact, the deader he is, the better he is. Take this Rembrandt fellow. I mean, he must have been good in his day. Now that he’s dead, he’s incomparable. Worth millions!”

And so Millet (played by Dale Monroe) — a fictionalized version of the famous French painter — comes up with a plan, in cahoots with his friends Chicago (Brian Madden), Dutchy (Zachary Conner) and O’Shaughnessy (Justin Montanaro). He’ll disappear, and they’ll inform the newspapers that he’s come down with some “tragic” disease. This will increase interest in his work, culminating in them being able to make a killing, so to speak, when they fake his death, several months later.

Only, he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in his room, hiding from the world. So he dons women’s clothing, makeup and a wig and creates a new identity for himself as Millet’s sister, Madame Tillou, a widow who is grievously concerned about her ailing brother.

From left, Dale Monroe, Grace Ahlin, Brian Madden and Erin Feith in “Is He Dead?”

Naturally, complications ensue.

The play’s villain André (played on the night I attended by the production’s director Peter Curley, stepping in at the last minute for Keith Hoovler, who had suffered an injury) is an art dealer and loan shark to whom Millet is in potentially disastrous debt; André was in unrequited love with Millet’s girlfriend Marie at the start of the play, but falls hard for Madame Tillou.

Millet and his buddies keep what they’re doing from Marie — because she’ll supposedly “give away the whole blessed thing” — and her sister Cecile (Erin Feith), who is dating Chicago; Cecile, suspicious that Chicago is courting Madame Tillou, disguises herself as a police inspector in order to try to figure out what is going on. And Madame Tillou has a second suitor, too: Marie and Cecile’s widower father, the earnest Papa Leroux (Kevern Cameron).

The second act jumps ahead to the point, not too far in the future, when it is time for Millet to “die.” The plan to get people interested in Millet’s art has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams; a massive public funeral is planned, with royalty from all over the world in attendance. The Emperor of Russia and the Sultan of Turkey don’t know, though, that the coffin is filled with only bricks. At Madame Tillou’s home, meanwhile, there is lots of hiding in rooms and doors slamming as various people try to figure out the truth, or hide it from others.

Millet initially seems gloomy to a ridiculous extreme; he tells Marie at one point that he will be with her shortly, but that “I have to brood a while.” But becoming Madame Tillou is transformational for him, in a way. Though he does not love André, the idea of a big wedding is tempting. “Ten yards of Belgian lace and a wedding dress never hurt any man,” he muses.

There are hints of some serious themes here, but Twain, for the most part, keeps things pretty frothy. The shallowness of his approach comes through clearest via Chicago, Dutchy and O’Shaughnessy, who are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes — the blustery American, the high-strung German and the rascally Irishman, with comically exaggerated accents to match. (Speaking of accents, how is it possible that Cecile has a strong French accent but her sister Marie has none at all?) But “Is He Dead?” is still undeniably fun, and, needless to say, a must-see for anyone with an interest in Twain.

Wait a second, you may be thinking to yourself … how come I never heard before that Mark Twain wrote a play? Let me explain.

Twain wrote “Is He Dead?” in 1898, when he was in his 60s, adapting it from his 1893 short story, “Is He Living or Is He Dead?” It was not published until more than 100 years later, though, and was first produced onstage in 2007, in an adaptation by David Ives. (The Summit Playhouse is using that adaptation.)

Ives, wrote Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin in her introduction to Ives’ published script, “put Twain’s play on a much-needed diet, compressing three acts to two and whittling a play that would have required some 35 actors to a play that can be produced with as few as 11.” That is the size of the Summit Playhouse cast, with three actors playing multiple roles.

Ives “staged scenes that Twain had left off-stage,” Fishkin continued, “and while eliminating several characters and plot elements, he also developed others. Ives did what Twain hoped someone would do: he tightened the play and adapted it for today’s stage, while keeping it in the spirit of what Twain wrote.”

The Summit Playhouse will present “Is He Dead?” through May 11; visit


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