by Shirley Lorraine
Conejo cooks up Comedy Cacophony
For a high-spirited evening of fast-paced shenanigans, Is He Dead? now playing at Conejo Players Theater in Thousand Oaks, fills the bill.
America’s well-loved master storyteller, Mark Twain, offers the basis for this long-hidden work. Twain’s acumen as a playwright was the lesser of his talents, to his documented great disappointment. The work presented is minimally lifted by later adaptation by David Ives.
Written in 1898, the play is set in France 1846. The complicated and twisted plot mirrors some of the fun of its successful predecessor, “Charlie’s Aunt”, written in 1892. A popular style at the time was high farce employing many surprises, disguises and exaggerated characters. Is He Dead? uses these standard gimmicks and more.
The play is a classic melodrama typical of the time. A French artist, Jean-François Millet (Nicholas D. Johnson), finds himself unable to sell enough paintings to live comfortably. Following a visit from a prospective buyer, his friends Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner (Nick Bemrose), Hans “Dutchy” Von Bismarck (Ezra Ells) and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Robert Chambers) hatch a plot to declare the artist dead to elevate the value of his works. He wouldn’t be dead of course – he would pretend to be his sister, a widow, who would then reap the benefits of his new-found fame.
Chicago’s sweetheart, Cecile, played by Dawn Michelle and Jean-Franҫois’ paramour Marie, (Lauren Rachel), are appropriately devastated by the ruse that is kept secret from them. They befriend the “widow” causing much consternation throughout.
In the meantime, Bastien André (Kyle Johnson), in attempting to recoup a loan he made to the artist, falls hopelessly in love with the widow, as does the two girls’ father, Papa Leroux (Jim Seerden). Jean-Franҫois, now as the widow Daisy Tilou, must fend off both suitors.
Several of the actors fill several roles, adding to the frenetic action. Thomas Carbone embraces three quite different roles, for instance, all to exaggerated comic effect.
Erin Fagundes and Judy Diderrich portray Madames Bathilde and Caron, who hover sweetly and offer period atmosphere. Jeremy Zeller makes a brief appearance as the King of France. Of course, all is resolved in the end and the happy couples reunited.
The costumes are a highlight of this production. Obviously, much care went into their design and creation to carry the flavor of the piece. The setting produced awkward challenges for the lively foot action. I was confused by the “paintings” that appeared to be photographs on canvas. The second act with myriad doors for entrances and quick exits allowed more opportunity for freedom of movement.
Perhaps it reads better than it plays. The relentless overplay and shouting made it difficult for me to ferret the dialogue out of the din, thus losing some of what little of Twain’s signature humor is embedded in the piece. Several characters are written to use accents to help define their roles, adding to the listening challenge. Oddly, although set in France and featuring a French artist, that verbal touch seemed to be missing except as used lightly by Kyle Johnson as Mr. André.
Is He Dead? Continues through October 6. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. www.conejoplayers.org or 805-495-3715 for tickets. Adults $18, Students, Seniors and Military $16.