Story: Jean-Francois Millet is quite a talented artist. So good, in fact, that a would-be buyer laments the fact that Millet isn’t dead. If he were, reasons Basil Thorpe, the value of his works would substantially escalate, because that’s the way of the world in Paris in 1846, when an artist’s worth increases after death.

That gets Millet’s pals Chicago, Dutchy and O’Shaughnessy thinking: What if Millet fakes his death? That will take him off the hook for a debt he owes to the vile Bastien Andre. Plus, with his newfound wealth he could pay off another debt owed Andre by Leroux, father of his beloved Marie and her sister Cecile.

Millet isn’t crazy about the idea, but his trio of comrades push forth with the scheme. They announce through the local newspapers that “noted artist” Millet has a terminal illness and has gone to the Barbary Coast to live out his remaining days. In his absence his apartment is inhabited by his fictitious ‘twin sister,’ the widowed ‘Daisy Tillou,’ aka Millet in disguise.

Voila! Millet’s paintings are going for a fortune. But now the dastardly Andre throws a curve: His contract with Millet stipulates that he can take payment in the form of paintings as well as currency. He can make a tidy profit by that route, he says, unless the beautiful Marie consents to marry him.

Meanwhile, Cecile assumes the disguise of an inspector who investigates the mysterious Tillou, because she suspects that her sometime flame Chicago is having an affair with the oddly attractive widow.

When Daisy meets Andre, she expresses her displeasure about his arrangement with her “late” brother. No problem, says Andre, who is instantly smitten with her. If Madame Tillou will marry Andre, he’ll tear up the contract.

Now, this is a conundrum for Millet, for sure. His troubles quickly escalate, however, when Chicago informs him that the king of France intends to attend Millet’s wake along with a couple of other potentates. The lads need another scheme, and quickly, to stave off imminent disaster.

Highlights: A wacky performance by an inspired St. Louis Shakespeare cast enlivens this free-wheeling adaptation by David Ives of an original play written by Mark Twain, filled with the satirist’s signature humor.

Other Info: While Is He Dead? is consistently funny, there’s no denying that one has the feeling this is familiar territory. That’s because Ives has kept himself busy the last several years, in part, by adapting with colloquial language humorous works by a number of playwrights from earlier eras.

Adaptations for works such as Georges Feydeau’s farce, A Flea in Her Ear, and Pierre Corneille’s The Liar have received acclaim for notable productions in the 21st century. St. Louis Shakespeare itself staged a superb rendition of the latter a couple of years ago.

Ives adapted a play written by Twain in 1898 titled Is He Dead? which was produced on Broadway in a world premiere in late 2007, where it closed early in 2008 after just 105 performances. Perhaps the work’s similarity to shows such as Charley’s Aunt, which are built around the premise of a man masquerading as a woman and the comedy that ensues with unsuspecting other characters, made it seem formulaic.

In any event, Ives preserves Twain’s acidic wit and his wry observations about human nature, especially when noting how artists achieve greater fame after their lives are over. The current presentation by St. Louis Shakespeare is expertly guided by director Edward Coffield, who keeps the shenanigans moving at a brisk pace. He also allows his performers to utilize hyperbole without being too exaggerated, a delicate but important balance.

The festive atmosphere is enlivened with Matt Stuckel’s clever set design, which features a cornucopia of stylish paintings adorning Millet’s apartment , as well as the requisite doors and windows required for an effective farce.

Costume designer JC Krajicek has a field day with a delightful array of costumes festooning the players, and perhaps she can be credited as well (or not) with Ben Ritchie’s Snidely Whiplash mustache for the villainous Andre. Meg Brinkley is credited as “set dresser” for the abundance of painter’s drop clothes adorning the edges.  She provides some amusing props, too.

Ted Drury’s sound design is a curious blend of guitars and fiddles and all manner of instrumental tunes, a hodgepodge designed to get the audience in the mood for a fine time. John Taylor’s lighting complements the set.

Zac McMillan anchors this amusing presentation as the easily flustered Millet. He makes absolutely no attempt to feminize the widow Tillou, which of course makes romantic scenes between Daisy and Andre or Leroux all the funnier. McMillan also works seamlessly with Millet’s ‘Three Mis-keteers’ to accentuate a series of fitfully funny scenes with them.

Jack Zanger is a hoot and a holler as Chicago, brashly leading his pals on a brazen and reckless plan to amass a fortune, making up ideas as he goes with bravado and his charming ways to compensate for his imperfect brain. Chicago is impervious to pitfalls, albeit a bit thick in understanding Cecile’s emotions.

Nicole Angeli and Jennifer Theby Quinn all but steal the scenes in which their tipsy landladies hold court in Millet’s apartment, proving themselves accomplished at both physical humor and droll delivery of their lines. That combination is evident also in Natalie Walker’s entertaining portrayal of Cecile and especially in her disguise as a famous French inspector.

John Fisher and Jacob Cange provide abundant humor as the perpetually noshing Dutchie and the thick-headed Irishman O’Shaughnessy, respectively, while Molly McCaskill does well as the dutiful Marie. Ritchie succeeds in underplaying the arch villainy of Andre in his speech and mannerisms, leaving the outrageous mustache to represent any arch element of his portrayal.

Add an amusing performance by Timothy Callahan as the aged but amorous Leroux and a quartet of splendid minor roles (Thorpe, Charlie the butler, a reporter, a police inspector) undertaken humorously by Joe Cella and you have the makings of a fine story told in splendid, silly fashion.  Even if it does look and sound overly familiar.

Play: Is He Dead?

Company: St. Louis Shakespeare

Venue: Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Avenue

Dates: August 10, 11, 12, 13

Tickets: $15-$20; contact 361-5664 or brownpapertickets.com

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Ron James

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