Funny in death

Chico Cabaret stages rediscovered Mark Twain play

FRIENDS LIKE THESE<br>Painter Jean-François Millet (Andy Hafer) can’t sell his paintings, but he’s a hit with his apprentices, Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Nick Anderson, left) and Chicago (Shawn Nichols, right).

Painter Jean-François Millet (Andy Hafer) can’t sell his paintings, but he’s a hit with his apprentices, Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Nick Anderson, left) and Chicago (Shawn Nichols, right).

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Vincent Van Gogh sold just one painting before his death … for around a thousand bucks. One hundred years after his death, in 1990, the Dutch painter’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold at auction for $82.5 million. This is the familiar example used in the “worth more dead than alive” discussion when it comes to the value of an artist’s work. And, as is suggested by the play’s title, this is the central premise of the first show of the Chico Cabaret’s ninth season, Is He Dead?

Written by Mark Twain in 1898, the play—about a struggling young painter (actual French naturalist Jean-François Millet, an influence of Van Gogh’s) who figures out that being dead might be a good career move—had never been published. After coming across the script in U.C. Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers archive, Twain scholar Shelly Fisher Fishkin had it printed in 2003. The modern stage version is an adaptation by playwright David Ives, who tightened the three-act, 20-plus-character script into an 11-character two-act that was seen in public for the first time in 2007, at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre.

Chico Cabaret is getting one of the earliest cracks at the play, and judging by the fully engaged Friday-night crowd’s enthusiastic response, the century-old work has weathered the passage of time nicely.

The play is set in France in 1846, where the young painter Millet (Andy Hafer) is in trouble. His paintings aren’t selling and his love, Marie (Melissa Lewis), is being courted by his art dealer, Bastien Andre (Mark Cunha-Rigby). The trickster dealer has purposely been keeping his client down in order to cash in on a contract that promises him 25 of the painter’s works if he doesn’t make good on the dealer’s loan.

Millet knows he’s talented, but it isn’t until a potential buyer balks at a purchase upon finding out the artist is not dead yet that he (with prodding from his hangers-on) figures out how to change his fortunes. Millet soon “disappears,” becoming his sister (Daisy Toulouse), and then, as they say, the hijinks ensue.

Even though the play’s setup is built upon the fairly weighty concern of how the value of art is determined, Twain’s script is a feather-light, old-fashioned farce. The caricatures are of the broadest sort (drunk Irishman, Limburger-eating German, mustache-twisting villain), and the central La Cage aux Folles/Mrs. Doubtfire cross-dressing/mistaken-identity shenanigans that have long become ubiquitous.

Most farces are light though. The good ones overcome it with an energized and focused effort by the cast and director, and, if we’re lucky, a few unexpected twists.

On the first count, the Cabaret gets the work done. It’s the Cabaret, after all—even though this one isn’t a musical, director Sue Ruttenburg has assembled a lively crew that dances through the production. With the exception of a couple of unfortunately garbled lines toward the end of act one, everyone was on board.

Highlights included Millet’s pot-stirring apprentices (especially Nick Anderson as the goofy, wiener-dog-painting Phelim O’Shaughnessy) who kept the fuel on fire with their background antics: Anderson and Sean Green’s Dutchy’s how-to-sit-like-a-lady lesson was hilarious.

And Magnus Shriner provided a pointed energy boost every time he hit the boards with one of his multiple characters—the clueless, stuffy British art buyer; pretentious French journalist; flamboyant butler (with oddly compelling sharp mannerisms) and king of France.

Mostly, it was the Andy Hafer Show though, and, in and out of drag he brought a likeability and unforced passion to the Millet rollercoaster. He was energetic without being hammy, and moved from spot-on physical gags to engaged relationships with many different characters seamlessly.

And despite a telegraphed narrative early on, the second act of Ives’ adaptation takes a couple of satisfying turns before tying things off.

Props also need to go out to Brad Rundt, Donna Foster and Ruttenburg for the painting and design of the fun, chunky lines of color across of the backdrop of Millet’s home, as well as to Alter Ego Costume Design for once again providing a lush array of impressive costumes for a local theater production.