Hale Centre Theatre is staging "Is He Dead?" in a production that builds laughs and momentum as it rolls along. The first scene feels forced — the actors in the Monday, Wednesday, Friday cast are trying too hard to be funny — but after the destitute artist Millet transforms into his flamboyant twin sister, Daisy, Ben Abbott's riotous performance injects a jolt of energy that doesn't quit.
Ives inherited "Is He Dead?" from Twain, who had the idea but never could make it work as a play. Twain had an unerring eye for the ironic mix of humor, ignorance and perversity that characterizes human behavior. While they live, artists are unrecognized, but after they die, their work becomes valuable, and they become famous and wealthy when it no longer matters.
The artist in this case is Jean-François Millet, the French painter who created "The Angelus." To resolve his debts, his friends concoct a scheme to have him "fake the dying and go straight to the riches." He will become his twin sister, the widow Daisy Tillou. But there are unforeseen consequences. What about his fiancée, Marie? And what happens when two men fall in love and want to marry him?
Lines like the widow remarking that she and her brother are "closer than a congressman and a barrel of pork" are pure Twain, but most of the clever dialogue and outrageous gimmicks come from Ives, who is expert at getting laughs from a room full of doors, a container full of artificial limbs and a coffin full of Limburger cheese.
Abbott's performance as the widow is so outrageously inventive that when he quips, "I just make it up as I go along," it's completely believable.
Rusty Bringhurst ("Chicago"), Trenton James Krummenacher ("Dutchy") and Brandon Green (O'Shaughnessy) are like an international version of the Marx Brothers as his compatriots in crime, although Krummenacher's undefinable accent — French? German? — makes him hard to understand.
Eden Benson is alternately sweet and melodramatic as Marie, and Kylee Wood's Cecile is mischievous and full of personality. David Marsden (Papa Leroux) and Michael Hohl (Bastien Andre) compete shamelessly for the widow's attention, and Linda Jean Stephenson and Sallie Cooper are hilarious as Millet's dithery, ditzy landladies. Cameron Garner deftly individualizes several auxiliary characters.
Director Eric Jensen keeps the action racing along and injects humorous touches of his own — I like the squeaky hot-water bottle. Michael Gray's sunny lighting sets off Jennifer Taylor's stylish sets, and Suzanne Carling's period costumes — especially the widow's voluminous pink and red dresses — add to the fun.
"Is He Dead?" is pretty silly stuff (wrapped around a kernel of truth), but the good-natured fun of the Hale's production is infectious.