Farcical Mark Twain redux ‘Is He Dead?’ hits Balch Arena

The Tufts production of 'Is He Dead?' balanced stellar student acting with subtle and beautiful lighting and costumes. Courtesy Tom Morin; Poster design by Grossman Marketing Group.

For many actors, the Wednesday evening dress rehearsal of Tufts University Drama Department’s “Is He Dead?” (first performed using the adapted David Ives version in 2007) could have spelled disaster. Plagued by hours of lost practice time in the weeks leading up to the performance, stage manager Tom Morin, a sophomore at Tufts, jokingly said, “The rehearsal process was more of a farce than the play, due to the snow,” while he waited for actors to receive their notes from Director and Tufts Professor Laurence Senelick. And yet, the quality of Tufts‘ actors shone through as spectators muffled their laughter at the cleverly written play’s slapstick comedy.

Set in mid-nineteenth century France, “Is He Dead?”, a comedy written by Mark Twain and adapted by David Ives, follows the larger-than-life Jean-Francois Millet. Played by junior Ed Rosini, Millet is a talented yet financially struggling artist who believes his paintings will sell for a higher value if he is presumed to be dead. Millet’s friends spread the story that the artist has been sent away to live out the last of his days after the diagnosis of a terminal illness. In order to escape detection, the artist returns disguised as his fictional sister, Widow Tillou, and is forced to entertain while pretending to mourn his own death. What follows is a series of sexually confused interactions, a great deal of tomfoolery and a not-insignificant amount of cross-dressing that leaves the audience wondering how the Frenchman will remain undetected.

Characterized as as a “very silly show” by junior Andrew Prensky, who plays greedy art dealer Bastien Andre,Is He Dead?” still intersperses thought-provoking pieces of social commentary by Twain that are as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1898. One example of this comes as Millet tires of his false existence: One of his friends, in on the hoax, notes “It’s a rich life,” as Millet’s artwork brings in a huge influx of money. The artist starkly replies, “It’s a poor excuse for a real one.”

From the dress rehearsal, it was clear that the student actors’ preparation allowed for a smooth delivery of humor. Junior Diana Lori Sapashnik plays Marie Leroux, Millet’s love interest. Sapashnik noted that with department shows there is generally a “lot more preparation, [an] extra day a week you have to rehearse.” The professionalism that went into the rehearsals was also evident. Rosini explained that actors “operate based on Equity rules” in the department shows, following guidelines such as precise breaks that reflect those given to professionals in the industry.

In interviews after the Wednesday run-through, the confidence of the actors in the play’s content and timeliness abounded. Sapashnik said that it is “just farce and funny and comedy, and it’s a great way to relax … We’ve had a bunch of really great performances [at Tufts recently], but … they get very heavy, and I think it’s nice to have some lightness interspersed with the heaviness just to relieve students from the everyday stress that they have.”

Whether one is lamenting missed Monday night seminars, wondering how they will shovel out their driveway for the umpteenth time or feeling a case of the winter blues, they should make their way to Balch Arena to appreciate the work put into what is sure to be a hilarious performance. “We’re ready; we’ve been ready,” Morin says. Prensky adds, “This is a very big show, full of really big laughs.” Rosini concludes, “All it needs now is an audience to laugh at it.”

“Is He Dead?” is running in Balch Arena from February 12-14, and 19-21 at 8 p.m. Varied ticket pricing depending on the day of the performance applies.