*Is He Dead?* preview and interview with Rick Hornor

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Is He Dead?, a recently discovered comedy by Mark Twain, plays at Whitworth University on March 5-13. Tickets: $8; $6, students and seniors. Call 777-3707.

A short preview will appear in the March 4 Inlander. But in the meantime, here's an e-mail exchange between Bobo and director Rick Hornor of Whitworth's theater department. (Once upon a time, back in 1990-97, they were colleagues.)

Bobo: David Ives, I've learned, cut from three acts to two, added some jokes, retained but revised some subplots, threw out some characters. Is that accurate? Can you tell where the changes are? Rick Hornor: Your description of Ives's edits is accurate. When sitting down with the original and the revised, the changes are obvious but I doubt the audience will be able to say, “Oh, that was Twain and that was Ives.” Ives wrote, “In everything I did as an adapter, I took it as my job not to replace Twain but to complete his work, to do to the original what he himself would have done had he had 97 more years to think about it and few more plays under his belt. He turned out to be a superb collaborator. Except for the cigars, we got along just fine.” I think Ives did a wonderful job of tightening the play by streamlining the action and reducing the cast size. The original is clunky, which explains in part why Twain couldn’t get anyone to produce it.

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Bobo: Do you have any rat-a-tat-tat, slam-bang door-slamming farce sequences that are especially demanding to stage? Hornor: Twain loved and frequently attended melodramas and farces so yes, we’ve tried to incorporate acting styles and characterizations typical of classic melodrama and farce. More challenging for the actors than the physical doing of some of the antics is the timing. Comic timing is tough.

Bobo: Actors always say that comedy is harder to do than drama. Do you agree? What specifically is difficult about this comedy? And a man in drag for extended sequences -- doesn't that make your job easier? Hornor: Yes, I agree comedy is generally harder to do well. What I think is funny is not necessarily what you think is funny. With farce, especially, we walk a narrow edge between funny and banal. Yes, Twain helps us out by keeping our leading man a leading woman and by employing disguise with a number of other characters.

Bobo: Twain's humor got more bitter in his later years. Any trace of that here? I mean, isn't it about his feeling under-appreciated, and they won't really know what they've lost until I'm dead, etc.? Or is it mostly just silliness? Hornor: Twain wrote this play while on a speaking tour in Europe to raise money because he couldn’t pay his bills with what he was making/not making in the U.S. At about the same time, the real Millet died and there was a bidding war between the U.S. and France for one of his paintings. Twain’s recurring admonition is initially spoken by Dutchy: “Vhat a fool vorld it is. Ven it haff a great Master, it don’t know it und let him shtarve. Und venn he is tead, zenn he is recognized! Zenn come ze riches! Und vhat can you do mit zese riches, being dead?” However, the plethora of jokes, eccentric characters, and physical comedy balance Twain’s declamations on the state of art and artists.

Bobo: Please describe the set. Peter Hardie has designed a brilliant set. We are leaving the curtains open during the intermission to allow the audience to watch the magic of changing the poor artist’s studio of Act I into the elegant Parisian apartment of Act II.

Bobo: Will you use any Millet painting-facsimiles? [Twain's main character is loosely based on the French painter Jean-Francois Millet, 1814-75]

Hornor: Yes. The play references "The Angelus" and "The Gleaners" specifically. One of our art students who is also in the play, Giselle Stone, painted facsimiles for us.

**** Is He Dead? notes:
Bobo got to watch a costumed run-through this morning.

19th-century art song. Vintage show posters with screaming headlines: "a brilliant effusion of comedy, caprice, mayonnaise and mirth ... Desperate Encounters! Exciting Denouement! ... a rip-roaring farce with thrills and laughter."

Corn-pone exposition. Melodramatic villain. National stereotypes: Irish clown with a brogue, German clown in lederhosen making Limburger cheese and "the wurst comes next" jokes. Stop-action, gaslight asides.

The artist and his buddies comes up with a ruse to increase the value of his paintings -- but somebody's gonna have to put on the wig and balloon breasts. Odd to watch a comedy in a mostly empty auditorium: Where will the laughs occur?

more notes:

http://theater.nytimes.com/2007/12/10/theater/reviews/10dead.html Dec. 10, 2007 review by Ben Brantley

Spokane connection at two removes:

David Pittu, who played (Basil Thorpe/Claude Rivire/Charlie/the King of France) in this Lyceum production, starred in the musical spoof What's That Smell? in which Spokane's own Max Kumangai-McGee (LC, Civic, CdA Summer, U of Mich., etc.) played a featured role

1898 play, much like Charley's Aunt (1892)

In 2002 -- 104 years later -- it was discovered in Twain's papers housed at U.C. Berkeley in 2002 -- in the back of a filing cabinet, untouched, in Twain's handwriting.

It was supposed to have been produced by Bram Stoker (as in Dracula). It's set in Paris in 1846.

Yet apparently it was long known to scholars -- just, nobody did anything with it until Stanford's Shelley Fisher Fishkin fished it out of obscurity and got it staged.

Theater Mania interviews of cast, director, adapter (video): http://www.theatermania.com/broadway/news/10-2007/mark-twain-dead-or-alive_11965.html

Elyse Sommer's Dec. '07 CurtainUp review (which quotes the title phrase): http://www.curtainup.com/ishedead.html

good preview of a Dec. '08 production in Jacksonville, Fla.: http://www.eujacksonville.com/story2.php?storyid=149

a National Review review, with some of the same photos and jokes as the other reviews: http://article.nationalreview.com/348929/iis-he-deadi-is-alive/deroy-murdock

[Millet's The Gleaners, 1857, from pioneerwoman.com]

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