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Written near the end of the 19th century but not performed until the 21st century, the comic play "Is He Dead?" by Mark Twain lay forgotten in a dusty archive.

Though Twain was pleased with the theatrical work, it didn't hit the stage until an unlikely discovery by a Twain researcher at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library led to a Broadway production.

"Is He Dead?" is classic Twain: clever, outrageous, brash and eager to poke fun at convention. The play opens at Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater <NO1><NO>tonight for a three-week run.

The lead character is Jean-Fran?is Millet, a talented but destitute painter whose work doesn't get its due. Millet stages his own death to make his paintings more valuable, but the stunt leads to further troubles exploited to comic effect.

Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor at Stanford, came across "Is He Dead?" in 2001 in the Bancroft Library's collection while researching racial themes in Twain's work.

Though not eager to read the manuscript, as Twain isn't viewed as a skillful playwright, she dived into it, and, according to the New York Times, found herself laughing out loud.

"I hadn't had that much fun reading a manuscript in a long time," she told the Times in 2007. "And I'd never been as surprised. It was a whole, finished play."

Fishkin approached producer Robert Boyett, who asked playwright David Ives to re-work the play. Ives has adapted plays for the "Encores" series of bygone musicals, and Boyett felt he was the ideal person for the job.

Ives "can take a classic and, without losing the intentions of the original author, make it work for today," Boyett told the Times.

When Boyett approached Ives, he leapt at the opportunity.

"I said, &amp;&lsquo;Mark Twain? Are you kidding?' So I read Twain's manuscript and instantly said yes," Ives told The Press Democrat.

As much as he respected Twain's work, Ives saw fundamental problems in the play and sharpened his chisel.

"Twain's play, truth to tell, was not very good," Ives said. "But it had two brilliant comic ideas: First, an artist fakes his own death, and second, in order to pull off the supposed death, he passes himself off as his own widowed sister. How could one not want to dig into such a vein of golden comic ore?"

Ives, 59, made substantial changes but couldn't alter everything he wanted. Ives "hates" the title, but he couldn't change it because the Twain estate controls aspects of the play.

Another example: Ives had to keep Millet, a real-life painter well known in Twain's time but much less known now, as the lead character.

To make the play financially viable, Ives trimmed the cast from two dozen to 11, with one actor playing four roles. And to keep the action fast-paced, Ives added some suspense at the end of the first act and introduced two subplots in the second act.

Asked if he felt daunted taking on the work of an American icon, Ives said, "I've adapted 27 old musicals for the Encores musicals series in New York, so I'm used to sitting down and taking ancient dramaturgical clocks apart and making them run again.

"At Encores I've worked with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin Brothers, Oscar Hammerstein and plenty of other geniuses who are no longer physically with us (or whose deaths have been exaggerated)," he added, "so sitting down with Twain felt very cozy."

After studying the 1898 play and picking up Twain's style, Ives found he could write dialogue for the 19th-century characters.

"It was a breeze," he said. "It was fun. And if you're not going to have fun with something like &amp;&lsquo;Is He Dead?' then what's the point?"

The play debuted at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway in December 2007. It received favorable reviews but closed after 105 performances.

With better promotion, "it should have run a couple of years with successive additions of third-rate television stars in the lead and made a lot of money for everybody, delighting packed houses." Ives said.

"The Broadway poster (with a dachshund) misrepresented the show," he added, "making it look like a small contemporary murder comedy, when it is in fact a luscious classic comedy in the tradition of &amp;&lsquo;Some Like It Hot' and &amp;&lsquo;Tootsie.' "

After all the cuts, additions, edits and reconstructive surgery, one must ask: Is this Twain's play or Ives' work?

"It's just a play that Mark and I astrally collaborated on. In the end, I'd say the final script is about 50-50, Twain and me," Ives said.

"Centuries don't matter for plays. .<TH>.<TH>. Sophocles, Shakespeare and Chekhov remain our best contemporary playwrights, and will always remain so.

"I just hope people have as much fun at this play as I had working on it," Ives added. "That's all I ever hope of a play: for it to come alive."

Michael Shapiro writes about theater and music for The Press Democrat. Contact him at michaelshapiro@yahoo.com.