From “Twelfth Night” to “Tootsie,” mistaken gender identity has been the fodder of many a funny farce. But after more than 400 years, it takes something special to raise this subgenre above the typical clichAcs. Through the first act of Barksdale Theatre's “Is He Dead?” I was afraid this show hadn't found that unique element. But in the second act, when man-disguised-as-woman mayhem collides with rags-to-riches ribaldry, the infectious laughter starts and doesn't stop until the final bows.
There's a certain irony in the title here, given that the script for this show was exhumed from an archive of Mark Twain's works nearly 100 years after his death. After an update by David Ives, Twain's long-forgotten play was given a short but well-reviewed Broadway run in 2008. For the Barksdale, director John Moon has mined the material for a number of laugh-out-loud moments and assembled a first-rate cast to transform the silly to the sublime.
Front and center is Beauregard Marie playing an undiscovered genius, painter Jean-Francois Millet. It is mid-19th-century Paris and Millet is being pushed to the brink of financial ruin by a dastardly benefactor, Bastien Andre (David Bridgewater). A troika of acolytes (played by Joseph Carlton, David Janeski and Derek Phipps) convinces Millet to pretend he's dying, which is certain to drive up the price of his work. Millet dons a dress and transforms himself into his twin sister, arriving on the scene to manage her brother's affairs. The requisite madness ensues.
The charm of Marie's portrayal is in how he layers only a thin patina of femininity over Millet's normal character. After the plan succeeds beyond anyone's wildest dreams, keeping a cap on his gruff outbursts becomes harder and harder. Bridgewater gets to chew a fair amount of scenery in his delicious portrayal of a classic bad guy. A number of great actresses fill out supporting roles, but among them Kristen Swanson gets the most to work with. She shows great pluck as the only character suspicious of the whole arrangement.
Some of the show's most entertaining moments are provided by Joe Pabst, who plays five small parts — ranging from the King of France to Millet's manservant — with consummate skill. He's assisted in no small measure by costume designer Sue Griffin who has some fun with over-the-top royal regalia, while outfitting most of the cast in fine period fashion. Betsy Muller's appealing set design goes through a dramatic transformation at intermission and is creatively lighted throughout by lighting designer Matthew Landwehr.
“Is He Dead?” may not be the most ingenious of farces but it's a satisfying addition to the canon, particularly as brought to jolly life by the Barksdale crew. S
“Is He Dead?” plays at the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn through May 23. Call 282-2620 or go to barksdalerichmond.org for details.