There are fewer than two weeks left to the Theater at Monmouth’s 41st summer season, but the zany entertainment is far from over. The theater still has five plays cycling through its calendar, including a lesser-known gem by Mark Twain, “Is He Dead?”

Perhaps the play struck too close to home for patrons in the late 19th century, or maybe Twain was just ahead of his time. Whatever the reason, “Is He Dead?” languished, unpublished and unproduced, until scholar Shelley Fischer Fishkin plucked it out of the vaults of obscurity in 2003 and David Ives shaped it into a Broadway production a couple of years later.

Audiences will be glad for their efforts. “Is He Dead?” may have been an utter flop a hundred years ago, but has since matured into a fine vintage of rip-roaring satirical fun.

To pull off this farcical romp, a cast must have chutzpah and a willingness to do anything, no matter how ridiculous. Monmouth’s cast has an abundance of both.

Dustin Tucker stars as Jean-Francois Millet, the real-life French painter from the 1800s. The prominent artist was highly respected — and alive — at the time Twain wrote the play, but that didn’t stop him from poking fun with a bit of flagrant character assassination.

In the play, Millet is the stereotypical artist: poor, starving and underappreciated. Faced with impending ruin at the hands of the villainous picture-dealer Bastien Andre — played with over-the-top comic glee by Mark S. Cartier — Millet executes a half-baked scheme, concocted by pals Agamemnon “Chicago” Buckner (Mike Anthony), Hans “Dutchy” Von Bismarck (Dennis A. Price) and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (J.H. Smith III).

The plan? Since artists are only successful after they’re dead, Millet would “die” of a sensational disease and continue overseeing his affairs as his imaginary twin sister, Widow Daisy Tillou.

Meanwhile, Millet’s love, Marie Leroux (Grace Trull), finds herself oddly attracted to the Widow Tillou; Marie’s sister, Cecile Leroux (Clare Brower) becomes convinced that her love, “Chicago,” is having an affair with the Widow Tillou; and their father, Papa Leroux (Gene D’Alessandro), and Andre both try to woo the Widow Tillou.

Tucker is hilarious as the Widow Tillou, flouncing around the stage in elaborate pastel dresses, high-heeled boots and a wig of long ringlets. That alone gets the laughs, but Tucker amps up the comedy with hysterical facial expressions and quick-witted retorts and improvised lines.

Anthony, Price and Smith are equally riotous, playing up the American, German and Irish stereotypes of their characters. Nothing is sacred in their hands.

Elizabeth Helitzer (Madame Bathilde), Julie Fogh (Madame Caron) and Torsten Hillhouse (Basil Thorpe) round out the cast.

The plot is contrived, with echoes of other famous plays. But, that doesn’t stop it from being absurdly funny, with plenty of tasty comic fodder for Monmouth’s talented cast to delightfully exploit. And they do so shamelessly, with great aplomb.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

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