St. Louis Shakespeare Brings “Charlie’s Aunt” Back To Life As “Is He Dead?”

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Millet languishes on his couch as his friends show little sympathy in “Is He Dead?” at the St. Louis Shakespeare Company. Photo: Ron James

Cross dressing is a staple of some theatre pieces like “Charlie’s Aunt” and even Shakespeare gave it a whirl in plays like “Two Gentlemen Of Verona.” This time a play by Mark Twain has been adapted by David Ives and “Is He Dead?,” though given a great cast and slapstick direction, St. Louis Shakespeare can’t help carry the script through as well as some of David Ives other re-works like one SLSC did a few years ago, “The Liar.”

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Zac McMillan- now as Daisy, confronts Ben Ritchie as Andre while the cast looks on in the St. Louis Shakespeare Company production of “Is He Dead?” Photo: Ron James

The “uncredited” Ben Ritchie (his name and character were somehow omitted from the program) brings out his best Snidely Whiplash as Monsieur Andre- the cad who is after the money owed him by the artist Jean-Francois Millet. He is also after his art collection which he believes some day may be worth something and he’s also after Millet’s girlfriend Marie and later, Daisy- but we get ahead of ourselves. Mr. Ritchie provides another hilarious performance that borders on the melodramatic (and that’s okay, since this is more melodrama than anything else).

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The “ladies”- Nicole Angeli, Zac McMillan, Molly McCaskill and Jennifer Quinn- gossip during “Is He Dead?” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Ron James

Zac McMillan provides most of the laughs as the artist who decides he would be better off dead as artists are revered more, it seems, once they have died. He can avoid his long list of creditors as well. He comes back to life as his long-lost sister, Daisy (now we see where these plot twists are going). Four of Millet’s friends are always hanging around the garret as well including fine performances from Jacob Cange, John Fisher, Jack Zanger and Basil Thorpe who also takes on multiple roles of dysfunctional acquaintances and/or creditors who pop in and out of the artist’s life.

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The gentlemen discuss Millet’s problem during the St. Louis Shakespeare Company production of “Is He Dead?” Photo: Ron James

A delightful performance from Molly McCaskill as Marie brightens things up considerably and her friend, Cecile is given a nice turn by Natalie Walker- who also gets to do a bit of cross dressing. Timothy Callahan delivers with a devilish performance as a dirty old man who has the occasional mental lapse.

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Timothy Callahan as Leroux tires to woo Zac McMillan as Daisy to no avail in “Is He Dead?” at St. Louis Shakespeare. Photo: Ron James

The real treat of the evening is two society ladies given droll personalities by Nicole Angeli and Jennifer Quinn. Their nonsensical drivel and couched and subtle characters are the highlight of the play. Director Edward Coffield has granted every actor the chance to use broad gestures, multiple gasps, a few pratfalls and selfie-worthy poses to make sure you know this is broad comedy at its best.

Matt Stuckel has provided a versatile set while John Taylor has lit the show nicely. JC Krajicek gives the cast excellent and appropriate costumes with a little extra something to make Andre an unmistakeable villain- he even gets his own entrance music thanks to the Ted Drury sound design.

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A scene from the season opener of St. Louis Shakespeare Company- “Is He Dead?” Photo: Ron James

Perhaps more appropriate for the Goldenrod in its heyday, “Is He Dead?” is a fun evening but don’t expect the usual wit and sophistication usually provided by a David Ives play or adaptation. I’ve always been a big fan of Mark Twain- even read his two part autobiography- but maybe a play by a humorist who has been dead over a hundred years just isn’t relevant anymore.

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The cast of “Is He Dead?” currently playing at St. Louis Shakespeare Company. Photo: Ron James

That doesn’t mean you won’t have an enjoyable evening with an excellent cast, sparkling direction and Zac McMillan spending more than half the play as a woman. It’s just not what I was expecting from Twain and Ives. “Is He Dead?” plays through this week-end, August 13th at St. Louis Shakespeare Company at the Ivory Theatre.

 

 

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