Jean-Francois Millet was a well-known French painter in the mid-19th century. His “The Gleaners” (1857), in reproduction, graced many middle-class homes for years.
Globe-trotting writer Mark Twain would probably have been familiar with his work, although he was more successful than shown in Twain's depiction of him in this previously unpublished play, “Is He Dead?,” playing through Oct. 28 at the Arvada Center. It is a Creede Repertory Theatre 2012 feature, happily transferred to Arvada for a run.
(We are most pleased to see this cooperation among theater companies. This is a third collaboration between Creede and Arvada. Lone Tree will feature another Creede play in November.)
The play was discovered among Twain's papers, archived at the University of California-Berkeley, by Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Playwright David Ives was called in to adapt it for 21st-century audiences, and the look at scheming bankers and struggling artists seems quite timely. It had an unsuccessful run in New York in 1898.
Millet (Steven Cole Hughes), like many young guys, has a bunch of somewhat inept buddies who want to help him, and they go out on the streets looking for foreign customers for his paintings.
One arrives, is taken with a painting on the easel and inquires: “Is he dead? An artist has so much talent when he's dead.” He would not buy any work by an artist who is living, he continues.
The artist is in debt to dealer/lender Bastien Andre (a fine, sleazy John Arp) who will forgive the debt if he can marry Millet's sweetheart Marie (Caitlin Wise).
His friends convince him to pretend to die and have his “twin sister,” Widow Tillou, appear on the scene to manage his paintings. Hence, Hughes manages hoop skirts and a wig with aplomb.
Of course, the art begins to sell and farce reigns supreme as Tillou tries to help Marie's father with his debt to Andre and Andre becomes romantically interested in the widow.
Director Michael Pearlman has orchestrated a fast-moving, ongoing bit of silliness, which won't lead to deep philosophical discussions, but will lead to numerous chuckles — a bit over-the-top slapstickish perhaps, but these actors are such pros that timing and delivery are perfect throughout.
Costumes are handsome and the set change from messy artist's studio to proper parlor is seamless.
We're told in the notes that Twain wrote this as a means of fighting his way out of a severe depression following his daughter's death. It reflects the wry view of society that shows up in many of his writings.
One has to think he would approve of this presentation.
If you go
“Is He Dead? plays through Oct. 28 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd. It is a Creede Repertory Theatre production. Performances: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Pre-show talks, exploring the historical context of the play and what it means to Creed Rep, will be offered 30 minutes prior to curtain time on Oct. 25, 26, 27 and 28, free to ticket holders. An ASL sign language interpretation will be offered Friday, Oct. 26. Tickets: 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.