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Near-Death Experience 

Beck's Is He Dead? finds its tempo just in time

Is He Dead?

Through Feb. 28

Beck Center for the Arts

17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood,


Tickets: $10-$28

Artists' works are often worth more after they die than when they are alive. This explains the comment often heard after after Elvis Presley's demise: "Good career move." In that spirit, the post mortem valuation of art is the driving concept behind the Beck Center's Is He Dead?, a farce written by Mark Twain more than 100 years ago. 

As adapted by David Ives, this play attempts to be a door-slamming romp fueled by disguised identities, burlesque slapstick and (really) bad puns. It ultimately achieves those farcical heights in the second act, but it's something of a long slog to get there. 

Twain based his original manuscript on the very real Jean-Francois Millet, a 19th-century painter ("The Gleaners," "The Angelus"), who actually achieved some success while alive. But in this play's telling, Millet is poverty-stricken until he decides to fake his own death, reappearing as his own sister, the widow Daisy Tillou. 

He is abetted by his pals Dutchy (Tom Woodward, employing a Teutonic delivery), O'Shaughnessy (a sly and slithery John Peters) and Chicago (a sometimes flat-sounding Adam Thatcher). The sudden demise of Millet shocks his main squeeze Marie (Laurel Johnson), as well as her father, artist Papa Leroux (John Lynch), who becomes lecherously attracted to Daisy, and Marie's sister Cecile (Liz Conway), who plies her own cross-dressing gag in Act Two.  

Of course, once Millet is dead, the popularity and prices of his paintings skyrocket, and Daisy becomes a wealthy "woman," fending off various suitors, including the evil art dealer Bastien Andre. Many cross-dressing giggles ensue as Millet and his three-guy posse try to navigate their path to fame and fortune. 

One of the stumbling blocks of most farces is the initial exposition, which lays out all the characters and their agendas prior to the crazy, high-energy antics. In this production, the largely talented cast under the direction of Matthew Earnest struggles with the heavy lifting required in the first act.  

A farce is a delicate soufflé that will collapse if the timing isn't precisely right. And in the opening scenes, the pace is a tad off. A running joke of double-takes, when everyone onstage pivots in sync to look at the door or a clock, repeatedly loses its edge when there's too long a beat after each take. And when the art investor Basil Thorpe (a weirdly dotty Mark Seven) arrives to snap up the works of the recently departed Millet, there is not enough comical momentum in his crass search for anything on canvas with Millet's name attached. 

Happily, though, many of these glitches disappear in the second act when Nicholas Koesters, as Millet/Daisy, hits his stride and becomes a manic circus ringmaster as identities are hidden, revealed and twisted with gay abandon. Sure, a lot of the jokes are paleolithic, including the "woman as pieces-parts" shtick, but they still generate laughs. So Is He Dead? comes back from the dead to provide some nice, mid-winter farcical relief — something we all need about now. 

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