Is art really worth more once the artist is dead?
That’s the question legendary satirist Mark Twain tackles in “Is He Dead?,” an unpublished short story turned into a play by David Ives.
The Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., is hosting the Creede Repertory Theatre’s presentation of the play through Oct. 28.
“It’s a lost piece that a Twain scholar found and brought to Ives, who turned it into a production on Broadway,” Michael Perlman, the director of the production, said. “It’s really funny, but there is the challenge of how do you do a farce while keeping it truthful at the same time?”
The story follows Jean-Fancois Millet (Steven Cole Hughes) a real-life French painter who died in 1875, as he struggles to make ends meet while in debt to art dealer Bastien Andre (John Arp). Millet is in love with Marie Leroux (Caitlin Wise), but his debts make it difficult for them to start a life together, especially when Andre threatens him with prison unless he pays up.
Working under the belief that art truly is worth more once its creator is dead, Millet fakes his own death, and then dresses up as a woman and masquerades as his sister, the “Widow Tillou.”
The rest of this farce unfolds as only Twain could write, as Millet tries to come back to life and marry Leroux.
The story was definitely ahead of its time in the way Twain played with farce while addressing the issue of how much an artist really contribute to society.
“It’s almost like a political play, or a story about someone famous,” Wise said about the fact that even though Millet was a real person, the story is not based on events that actually happened to him. “It really examines how artists are seen in society.”
Arp spoke warmly about the cold villain he portrays and the levels that Twain gave the character.
“He’s very much the bad guy, but there are all these different styles and genres in play,” he said. “There’s the very melodramatic villain, but there are also touches of actual drama. It’s great to play all these levels.”
Wise describes her character, Leroux, as very sweet, but naive, while Hughes said his Millet is the embodiment of the struggling artist.
“That’s an idea that’s very near and dear to me,” he said. “I really enjoy the underlying themes about how hard it is to be an artist.”
While the play is meant to be funny, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few heavier moments.
“You’re really riding all the movements, kind of like a symphony,” Perlman said. “The are certainly some darker moments, but you also have Twain making fun of everything.”
Millet was very much a realist painter who focused on regular people, Hughes said, and that may be part of why Twain selected him as the main character.
“He chose an artist who painted the common man because it’s not about glorifying some nonexistent beauty,” Hughes said.
Perlman said there isn’t really a morality message by the play’s end, but there is a lot of social and class commentary, as well as an examination of the question of how do you go on when you’re told you’re not worth anything.
“When Twain wrote this, he was destitute, his money was gone, his wife and daughter had died, so there are these whispers of darkness in it,” Arp said. “Still, the way he was able to write this in such a funny tone is amazing.”
For more information and tickets, call 720-898-7200 or go online to www.arvadacenter.org.