Over the past two weekends, the Tufts Department of Drama and Dance put on the David Ives adaptation of Mark Twain’s play “Is He Dead?” in the Balch Arena Theater. As the title’s inquisitive nature would suggest, the production kept the audience guessing, allowing an engagement between viewers and performers to develop and leading the cast to deliver a strong show overall.
François Millet (played by junior Ed Rosini), the protagonist, is a skilled painter whose talent is unrecognized. Millet is in love with Marie Leroux (junior Diana Sapashnik), but is in debt to a villainous picture-dealer, Bastien André (junior Andrew Prensky). André forecloses on Millet, threatening debtor’s prison unless Marie marries Andre or unless Millet pays his dues within the next day. One of Millet’s mentees, known as Chicago (junior Artoun Festekjian), hatches a plan to have Millet fake his death in order to get the money, as only dead painters seem to achieve fame and fortune — a point made by another of Millet’s mentees, Dutchy (sophomore Yuval Ben-Hayun). Millet feigns terminal illness and subsequent death with the help of Dutchy, Chicago and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (junior Jacob Hoover) and prospers lavishly, all the while passing himself off as his own twin sister, the Widow Daisy Tillou. Now a wealthy “widow” with a butler and multiple male suitors (including Marie’s father, Papa Leroux, played by first-year Hershel Tamboli), Millet realizes he wants to return to life as François Millet. Therefore, he is forced to find a way to get out of the dress, return to life and marry Marie, all the while avoiding having anyone discover the ruse he has pulled.
The play took a while to establish its admittedly elaborate premise, but once it got going, it really got going. The comedy was truly stepped up in the second act, which takes place on the day of Millet’s funeral. Another of Leroux’s daughters, Cécile (junior Imogen Browder) disguises herself as a policeman in an attempt to discover the truth about Chicago’s relationship to the widow, as she is jealous of the way Widow Tillou and Chicago seem to get along better than she and Chicago do. The widow has to juggle a seemingly endless number of guests in “her” home, including the suitors, the “policeman,” Marie, Millet’s old landladies, his mentees and even some royals. This melange of characters could easily become confusing and overwhelming, but the actors handled it well. They used the whole arena to its full potential and made the stage seem truly intimate, a believable domestic space. Not only that, but the chaos actually came off as hilarious, leaving little time to breathe in between laughs.
The transformation of Rosini’s character from a clumsy and strange widow to a poised, graceful member of the bourgeoisie was not only believable, but also entrancing. He was able to truly shine, boosted by the strong performances of the other members of the cast. Even the smaller characters were memorable, from Millet’s landladies (sophomore Blair Nodelman and senior Kira Patterson) in the “widow’s” first scene, to the English art connoisseur (first-year Niall Cunningham) who comes to buy Millet’s newly-recognized work, to the widow’s butler (sophomore Jack Cramer) after she becomes rich due to the booming “posthumous” success of Millet’s work; even the royals (played by Cramer, Cunningham and sophomore Kate Mieher) who come to view Millet’s “remains” before the funeral are enthralling.
This transformation was aided dramatically by fantastic costuming, which reflected the elevation in social status for the characters between the two acts without explicitly stating the shift to the audience. The Widow Tillou was initially clumsily dressed; the wig was hastily plopped on Millet’s head, making the hairpiece seem like an obvious fake. However, when Act II began, the “Widow” was poised in a pink gown, with a perfectly set wig and beautifully applied makeup; the drastic transformation almost made the audience forget that there was another character, much less an actor, under all that getup.
But the most memorable and cleverly utilized aspect of the set was the lighting; the stage was bathed in alternating yellow and blue hues to signify when the mood was more comedic or when it was meant to be serious, and it even lit up dramatically whenever a character hatched a plan. This lighting design really added to the play’s atmosphere, immersing the audience in the crafted world.
With strong performances and exceptional technical execution, “Is He Dead?” succeeded in every aspect, despite having to take a little time to really find its stride.