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"Is He Dead?" At Winston Churchill High School

The throaty guffaw you just heard emanating from the great beyond belongs to Mark Twain, who is no doubt getting a kick out of the posthumous success of his 1898 play "Is He Dead?" — an exceedingly silly doodle of a comedy that Twain never saw produced in his lifetime.

Thankfully, "Is He Dead?" was recently resurrected from Twain’s archives and has received a first-rate polish by playwright David Ives. Directed by Lynda Scionti, Churchill is one of the first high schools in the area to take on the production. Senior Laura Sperling is Assistant Director.

A production opened on Broadway in 2007 to some critical praise. "Is He Dead?" relies on a familiar farcical device — a man in a dress — but finds ways to mine the premise for maximum laughs. The main character is Jean-François Millet, the real-life 19th century French painter of "The Gleaners" and other masterpieces depicting peasant life. As the play opens, the impoverished Millet (Alex Bankier) is trying to figure out how to pay off his many debts. His paintings aren’t selling and his mood is sinking faster than the Seine at low tide.

On the urging of some friends, Millet agrees to fake his own demise to inflate the value of his art. "The deader he is, the better he is," explains one character. The ruse works magnificently, with Millet posing as his widowed sister, Daisy Tillou (pronounced "to you"), to collect the proceeds.

Twain’s comedy moves so fast that many jokes are liable to fly past the audience.

Once Millet puts on an evening gown as Daisy, the play turns into anarchic slapstick, with characters entering and exiting at screwball speed.

The frenzied gallery of supporting characters include — Millet’s ditzy fiancée, Marie (Hope Kean), her jealous sister, Cecile (Michelle Pargament), his best friend, Chicago (Erik Rigaux), his over-eager pupil Phelim (Daniel Metherell), and another student, with a penchant for sausage and Limburger cheese, Dutchy (Kamran Partovi) make the greatest impressions.

At times, it’s difficult to discern where Twain’s writing ends and Ives’ polish begins. "Is He Dead?" is an example of an expertly constructed comedy — grounded in the mechanics of classical storytelling but somehow lighter than air.