Director Olivia Munk '16 (and Mark Twain) want you to laugh

by Brenna McDuffie '15

Is He Dead?, originally written by Mark Twain and adapted by David Ives, is a farcical drama that re-imagines the life of 19th century French painter Jean-Francois Millet. In the play, Millet finds himself in debt, feigns his own death to increase the value of his paintings and disguises himself as a young maiden to conceal his identity. Though the actions and characters are chaotic and overstated, Is He Dead? explores themes of love, loss, and financial hardship. I sat down with director Olivia Munk ’16, a Harvard Arts student blogger, to discuss her inspiration and vision for the production. Is He Dead? opened Oct. 17 and runs through Oct. 20 in the Adams Pool Theater.

Farce is rarely produced by undergraduates on campus. What inspired you to choose Is He Dead?

I chose this show because I’ve always loved Mark Twain, and I saw it on Broadway in 2007. The show is about Millet, who is a real painter though Twain takes a lot of liberties in narrating his life. This version of Is He Dead? was actually adapted by David Ives. The play was never produced in Mark Twain’s lifetime — it had too large of a cast, was too long and was considered rather racist. Ives cut the play down to two acts rather than three and cleaned it up to make it more accessible to a modern audience. I chose this play because it’s incredibly funny, and I feel that sometimes there isn’t enough comedy on campus. I think it’s so important to take time out of your day to go do something funny just for the sake of its being funny. It’s important to have that release. I thought the Adams Pool in particular would be a great place to produce a farce because it’s such a unique space and has so many interesting avenues for entrances and exits.

How did you work with your actors to explore such a specific style?

It’s easy to want to play these characters as charicatures because that’s how they are written. I have told the actors that I understand many of these lines and scenarios are very cliched, but they can’t be played as such. The characters of the play take themselves seriously, and the audience needs to believe that those characters are being honest. I’ve had to tell the actors not to try to play it as a farce, because the farcical elements will come across anyway through the surreality of the plot.

In what ways do you think this production appeals to a modern audience?

I think this play can definitely appeal to a modern audience because yes, it is a period piece, but there is so much modern humor in it. There’s cross-dressing, and Harvard always loves a good drag queen. But the play is also about love, loss and debt. There are some really intimate scenes and scenarios. For example, Millet is around his girlfriend at all times, but he can’t be with her because he has to feign his own death to make money. The play is very funny and light on the surface, but there’s an underlying theme of financial hardship.

Is He Dead? has been produced professionally, including on Broadway. Is there anything unusual or new that you hoped to bring out in this production?

I have a really fantastic set designer, Renee Zhan ’16, and we came up with a surrealist concept for the set together. The original production calls for a set transition between the two acts from a poor, shabby apartment to a very nice one. However, we decided to play with the idea that the characters’ actions are unfolding within a painting. We have bright colored back drops, paint-splattered drop cloths and paintings everywhere as if it were a painter’s studio. The set is meant to highlight how surreal this whole comedy is in contrast with some of the more realistic elements of the play, such as realistic props and period clothing.