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November 17, 2010
By Nonie Wainwright
The Nevada Repertory Company is performing a recently discovered work by Mark Twain, “Is He Dead?” The production has been brought to the stage locally by University of Nevada, Reno students to align with the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death and the release of his autobiography. The final performances will stage Nov. 17-20 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 21 at 1:30 p.m.
“We are in a unique position to mount a production where Mark Twain acquired a great love for the theater,” Chair of the University Department of Theatre and Dance Robert Ganders said. “The timing is just perfect with the 100th anniversary of his death and the release of the autobiography both during this time.”
According to Gander, Twain wrote about the common man, which may be the reason why many people feel a certain connection with his works.
“Here, in Northern Nevada, we have several direct connections with him,” Gander said. “This is a great opportunity for the community to come out and get close to Mark Twain, and not in the form of a novel, but to see a unique aspect of his personality through theatre.”
The manuscript of the production was discovered by Fishkin in 2002 during her research at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. “Is He Dead?” was originally written by Twain in 1898, yet had never been produced or put to the stage. Delighted by the ebullient play, Fishkin worked with the University of California Press to have it published in 2003 and then collaborated with producer Bob Boynett to bring the play to Broadway. Together they enlisted the talent of playwright David Ives to hone and tighten the play.
“Twain believed and had faith in his play; but, discouraged by his failure to get it produced in London or New York, filed it away with his papers and for the most part forgot about it. Nearly a hundred years after Twain’s death, “Is He Dead?” came to life, gloriously, on Broadway, leading the world to conclude that reports of its death had been, indeed, greatly exaggerated,” Fishkin said.
According to Gander, the premise of the comedy revolves around 19th century French painter Jean-Francois Millet. Millet is a brilliant painter in love with Marie Leroux, but is in debt to a villainous art dealer. He realizes the only way he can pay his debt is to die; after all, only dead painters achieve fame and fortune. Millet fakes his own death and assumes the identity of his twin sister, now a rich widow. He must find a way to get out of a dress, return to life, and marry Marie.
“The premise of the play, which will be performed Nov. 17-21, is a screwball-comedy centered on mistaken identity,” Gander said. “It skewers the value system we place on art. All of the actors have great comic timing; I am surprised at how they have reacted to the script. It tickles me pink to watch a group of students who want to share a piece of work, which is more than 100 years old, with others.”
Twain’s time spent in Virginia City, where he worked as a miner and reporter, is said to be where he gained his love for theatre.
“To the outside world, it’s a known fact that Mark Twain spent time here,” Patrick Laffoon, senior theater student said. “And we cherish the fact that an American treasure spent time here.” Laffoon plays the role of Millet and the widow in the production and is also a member of the set crew.
After a trip to Virginia City, students of the University’s Nevada Repertory Company discovered a set built in the late 1800s that still exists today at historic Piper’s Opera House. This set has been reconstructed to be used for Scene 2 of the production.
“It feels like a full circle of Twain’s career,” Laffoon said. “He started here and now his work is being performed here 100 years later. “We’ve been building the set for about four weeks now. Everything is hand painted and built from scratch. It’s a true representation of the set found in the Piper Opera House in Virginia City.”
Along with the debut of “Is He Dead?” comes the release of his autobiography. It was Twain’s request that the first volume of a three-volume edition of Mark Twain’s Autobiography was not to be published until 100 years after his death. Edited by The Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkley and published by University of California Press, the autobiography will hit shelves this month.
The final performances of “Is He Dead?” will show 17-20 at 7:30 p.m., and 21 at 1:30 p.m. General tickets are available for $15, and senior citizen and student tickets are $12 and can be purchased through the Lawlor Events Center Box Office at (775) 784-4444. More information on the production is available by calling the School of the Arts information line at (775) 784-4278 or visiting School of Arts.