Peninsula Players' Is He Dead?
STUFFY BACKGROUND CRITICISM
The theatrical farce is a genre of comedy that goes back to antiquity. Bearing a very specific cadence, rhythm and style, the genre has been passed down through the ages like a joke that simply will NOT go away. Light comedy of sex, romance and deception doesn’t have the kind of stuffy cache relegated to “serious,” drama, but there IS a kind of reverence when one thinks of people 100 or more years ago giving in and laughing at what are essentially the same stupid fart jokes that contemporary audiences can’t seem to avoid in the exact same genre of comedy. In this respect, the Peninsula Players’ new farce Is He Dead? is a perfect choice for a new space in an old theatre. The play may be new, but the genre has been around forever. Only four years old, the space Peninsula Players perform at is relatively new, but the players themselves are one of the oldest standing theatre companies in the state, with a history stretching back three quarters of a century. Located in Door County’s Fish Creek, it’s no small trip to see a show with the Players, but the atmosphere has a classy, late-‘30’s feel to it that makes it an exceedingly pleasant trip to a theatre people have been attending for generations.
Like any popular joke, everyone has a different way of delivering a farce. Chicago native David Ives is really well-suited to the genre. His light comedy Polish Joke (which was one of the last to be staged by the late Bialystock and Bloom Theatre Company) had a wild irreverence that valued fun over substance without completely alienating an interesting kind of depth. His series of comic shorts All In The Timing had a brilliant kind of madness to it. By far the hippest production to be staged by the Sunset Playhouse in at least half a decade, the Elm Grove production failed to find the kind of appreciative kind of audiences found in more urban productions of the shorts program elsewhere.
With Is He Dead?, Ives fuses farce with an old story by legendary American author Mark Twain. The story of an impoverished artist faking his own death to drive up the value of his work, the farce fuses the ethnic humor of Polish Joke? With some of the brilliantly offbeat humor of All In The Timing in a premise by one of the most celebrated wits in U.S. history in an expertly-framed farce. So the script is good, but how is the production?
The Peninsula Players are blessed with a rather impressive budget with lots of talent imported from the relatively large machinery of the Chicago theatre scene. The 14-person cast consists almost entirely of Equity Actors with plenty of experience in the Chicago theatre. Very few of them have faces familiar to Milwaukee-area theatergoers. The most recognizable local theatre name attached to the show is that of eerily ubiquitous Milwaukee-based lighting-designer Jason Fassl, who has probably done lighting for some 90% of the shows I’ve seen in over half a decade of going to theatre. The guy gets around. Nearly every time a light rises onstage in Milwaukee, there’s some kind of Byzantine meta-karmic wiring that can ultimately be traced back to the hands of Fassl. It’s weird.
Charismatic Kevin McKillip (who has done work for the Milwaukee Rep and the American Players Theatre in the past) stars as Jean-Francois Millet—a talented mid-nineteenth century artist who can’t sell a single painting. He is recognized as a genius by his fellow artists, who include the German Hans von Bismark (an endearing Joe Foust) the Irish Phelim O’Shaughnessy (a cleverly comic Patrick New) and Agamemnon Buckner from Chicago. Often referrers to as “Chicago,” Agamemnon is played by a very wily Sean Fortunato. Fortunato is given some really amazingly funny lines. If there’s a character representing Ives at all in here, it’s Chicago. Fortunato delivers brilliantly on those lines. The comic chemistry of New, Foust, Fortunato and McKillip is a bit lacking. Clearly they’re all professional actors with plenty of experience in comedy, but they seem subtly out of synch with each other . . . which isn’t entirely uncommon and not at all a serious flaw with the production. When one is used to seeing shows in Milwaukee and Spring Green with talented core company actors who have been working together for years, there’s a kind familiarity they build-up that can’t be manufactured. You get a bit spoiled seeing that kind of familiarity amongst actors in a town like Milwaukee . . . but I digress . . . Still—it WOULD be interesting to see a staging of this play with the Rep. (At a guess, I’d say Ernst, Neugent, Vaughnn and possibly Hanson could fill the roles really well.)
Of course, the interaction between the artists is only a fraction of the farce. As Millet is deeply in debt and behind on his rent, he is threatened with eviction. Chicago gets the idea to have Millet fake his own death and the play gets under way . . . The rest of the production is a great deal of fun. In order to interact with the outside world after his faked death, Chicago decides that Millet will greet the outside world in disguise as his fictitious twin sister. Thus McKillip spends much of the play in drag, accompanied by the usual sort of comedy one would expect from that sort of thing. To his credit, McKillip makes it feel relatively fresh in a highly entertaining production that serves as a really good excuse to drive up to Door County before the end of the summer.
Peninsula Players’ production of Is He Dead? runs through August 16th at the Peninsula Players Theatre on 4351 Peninsula Players Road in Fish Creek, Wisconsin.
ANSWER: The Barbary Coast was the 16th - 19th century term for the middle and western coastal regions of North Africa—what is now Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
It is also the name of a hotel in modern day Las Vegas that looks like this: