Death becomes him

Carpenter Square Theatre continues its 30th anniversary season with a production of Is He Dead?, a fast-paced comedy penned by American humorist Mark Twain and adapted for modern audiences by David Ives.

Set in 1846 France, Is He Dead? tells the story of gifted but still-starving artist Jean-Francois Millet, who is in debt to nefarious art dealer Bastien Andre. Millet’s friends hatch a scheme to fake his death because they assume that fame and fortune is only bestowed upon artists posthumously. Millet cooperates, taking on the guise of a grieving twin sister, the widow Tillou, until the plan can be carried out.

The play has an unexpected Oklahoma connection. Carpenter Square Theatre Artistic Director Rhonda Clark said French artist Jean-François Millet was the inspiration for Twain’s name for his lead character; Millet’s painting “The Sower” helped inspire the design for the portrayal of University of Oklahoma founder David Ross Boyd on the university’s seal.

The original Twain play had three acts and a huge cast and was never produced in his lifetime. It was later discovered in an archive and adapted by Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin. David Ives’ version incorporates elements of both Fishkin’s and Twain’s versions. The end result is a play in two acts with 11 actors playing 17 characters with much of Twain’s original dialogue intact.

Clark loves how Is He Dead? tackles serious issues, like the value of art and artists in society, and offers lighthearted solutions that illuminate the absurdity of the issue.

“Some people don’t respect farce, but I have a great respect for it because of the timing and focus it requires, along with lots of physical energy. I love shaping the show into a well-oiled machine with room for happy accidents,” said Clark. “It’s wonderful when a cast feels free to experiment and are so proud when they discover something new for a scene. Our lead, David Burkhart, who plays the painter Millet and gets into drag to play a woman, is one of the hardest-working actors I’ve ever met.”

Clark hopes the story moves audiences to appreciate the value of contemporary artists of all kinds, including visual artists, theater artists, musicians and dancers.

“Support artists living in our own community,” Clark said. “They don’t have to be from somewhere else to be great. There are so many talented people right here in central Oklahoma.”

Eric Webb

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