- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In 2002, Mark Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin found the unpublished 1898 comedy “Is He Dead?” in a file cabinet. Had it been written by anyone other than Twain, the best course might have been to slam the drawer shut and pretend nothing had been discovered.

A brilliant humorist and fiction writer, Twain comes up a bit short as a playwright. Hence, “Is He Dead?” is more an overstuffed curiosity than a well-made play. Yet Olney’s boisterous production, directed by Halo Wines, makes the most of this run-of-the-mill cross-dressing farce.

Modern playwright David Ives (“All in the Timing”) was entrusted with the task of trimming down Twain’s three-act play and eliminating the cast of thousands - all the while honoring the American author’s famous satiric flair. Mr. Ives pares the cast down to a nimble (and manageable) 11 actors while keeping Twain’s Limburger cheese jokes and the ebullient skewering of fame, greed and the capricious value of art.

This fictionalized portrait of the real-life master Jean-Francois Millet (Jeffries Thaiss) - his most famous works of peasant folk include “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners” - finds the starving artist realizing he’s worth more dead than alive. He and his fellow poverty-stricken painters Agamemnon Buckner (Eric Messner), Hans Von Bismark (Carlos Bustamante) and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (David Frankenberger) cook up a scheme in which Millet languishes from a fatal illness, which drives prices upward - until his fake funeral results in the ultimate art jackpot. Everybody wins: Millet and his friends and also his financially spent fiancee, Marie LeRoux (Elizabeth Jernigan) and her family.

Millet is reincarnated as his twin sister, Daisy, to keep an eye on the paintings — and the fortune. Trouble is, Daisy proves to be Millet’s most alluring creation, as everyone from Marie’s father (John Dow) to the unscrupulous art dealer Bastien Andre (Richard Pilcher) wants to marry her.

The setup and gags are so hoary they probably were first sketched out in the Lascaux caves, but an admirably game troupe of actors enlivens “Is He Dead?” and shakes loose the cobwebs, especially in the rollicking second act. Mr. Thaiss is gifted in the drag role of Daisy, equally convincing as a coquette and as a man who must quickly master the intricacies of femininity. His attempts to walk in heels and sit gracefully - sinking down onto the cushions with a swoop and a curve - are priceless examples of physical humor.

Miss Giordano also proves a winning slapstick comedian in her Inspector Clouseau-ish turn as Marie’s sister Cecile, who is not above donning drag herself to win the man she loves. Nick DePinto clearly relishes a variety of roles (including a clueless English art fop).

While the humor and the characters are broader than the Mississippi, you can detect Twain’s empathy with the plight of the unsung genius in an arbitrary art market. You wonder what he would make of what sometimes passes as art today - sheep carcasses and freeze-dried blood. Some things are even beyond satire.

STARS: ★ ★ ½

WHAT: “Is He Dead?” by Mark Twain, adapted by David Ives

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays and Feb. 18 and March 4, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, selected 2 p.m. matinees Feb. 18 and March 4. Through March 8.

TICKETS: $26 to $49

PHONE: 301/924-3400

WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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