Creede troupe goes for funny bone

Theater stages rare Twain, complex Hatcher

John Gary Brown/Creede Repertory Theatre
Steven Cole Hughes, as French painter Jean François Millet, celebrates Millet’s “death” with his fiancee (Caitlin Wise) resulting in a boon for sales of his paintings. The actors star in this summer’s production of Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” by the Creede Repertory Theatre. Enlarge photo

John Gary Brown/Creede Repertory Theatre Steven Cole Hughes, as French painter Jean François Millet, celebrates Millet’s “death” with his fiancee (Caitlin Wise) resulting in a boon for sales of his paintings. The actors star in this summer’s production of Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” by the Creede Repertory Theatre.

When he doesn’t understand something, 10-year-old Jeffrey Hatcher bluntly asks “What?” His new etiquette teacher promptly fines him a quarter.

“Don’t say ‘What?’ Say, ‘I beg your pardon,’” she admonishes him.

So goes little Jeffrey’s first day in class taught by prim, middle-aged Mrs. Mannerly, aka Helen Anderson Kirk. The lesson takes place in a faded second floor YMCA. The place is Steubenville, Ohio. The time is 1967, as indicated by portrait of Lyndon Johnson on the wall, not to mention Jeffrey’s buttoned-up plaid shirt and Mrs. Mannerly’s orange print dress with its Peter Pan collar.

“Mrs. Mannerly” is a gentle two-character, one-act play – a fictionalized memoir by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. He’s best known for literary adaptations – “The Turn of the Screw” for the stage and “Casanova” starring the late Heath Ledger for the movies. “Mrs. Mannerly” mixes nostalgia with a spritz of astringent. The play centers on an American dinosaur – etiquette classes for children.

Smart, sarcastic Jeffrey (the versatile Graham Ward) encounters Mrs. Mannerly (the brilliant Anne F. Butler), a confident and commanding private teacher. Ward also plays the four other students in the class. One by one, they drop out or quit, leaving Jeffrey to outwit Mrs. Mannerly. With comic precision, Ward principally as Jeffrey interacts with everyone, explaining his strategies directly to the audience. His twin goals are to be the first person in Mrs. Mannerly’s 36 years of teaching to score a perfect 100 and to uncover her secret past.

As teacher and student move toward a DAR competition, Jeffrey gets closer to some hidden truths. His plucky sarcasm softens, and in a brief epilogue, we get yet a later glimpse of this mysterious and meaningful relationship.

Director Charlie Oates blends realism with high comedy and one brief moment of fantasy. It comes out of nowhere and momentarily changes the tone. Gradual shifts toward a more human view of the adult world are beautifully wrought, resulting in this little gem becoming a carefully crafted coming-of-age story.

Set Designer M. Rey Duran has created a realistic interior that speaks of Mrs. Mannerly’s declining enterprise. Costumer Nina Silverberg exactly captures the late ’60s, and Light and Sound Designers Ryan Wentworth and Sam Wolfe support all the script’s shifts and turns with great subtlety.

Not your everyday Twain

Actor Graham Ward also plays multiple characters in a rare adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” The farce-cum-melodrama was written during a dark period in Twain’s life at the very end of the 19th century.

Twain selected a well known French painter, Jean François Millet, put him at the beginning of his career, and set up a comic premise. To become famous and sell one’s work at a profit, an artist is better off dead.

In Act I, Millet’s buddies concoct the ruse, invent a grieving sister and encourage the starving artist to take on her persona. The ruse works. Millet’s paintings sell like hot French pastries. Eventually, all the misunderstandings and mismatches, not to mention the cross-dressing disguises that result, are all straightened out.

Whether dressed in male attire or fancy dress, Steven Cole Hughes delivers a vigorous Millet and his fictitious sister.

As Millet’s distraught fiancee, Caitlin Wise pines vociferously. As the wealthy and villainous art dealer Bastien André, John Arp almost steals the show. A large cast of characters keeps the conceit moving from one improbable situation to another.

Set Designer Jon Young provides Millet’s studio with enough famous paintings and doors to establish an atmosphere for true farce. Act I proceeds a bit slowly, but the pace picks up appreciably in Act II, which takes place in an elegant Parisian apartment with even more doors.

Creede Rep has a reputation for solid comedy, and with David Ives’ adaptation of the Twain melodrama or Hatcher’s own quirky memoir, these two productions keep the CRT reputation intact.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.