The first week of the 2016-17 Payson High School school year, Thomas Walling cast the play, “Is He Dead?”
Tragically, before he could direct the play, Walling died of heart failure from a birth defect. He was 32 years old.
Walling’s choice of the Mark Twain-written comedy perfectly reflected his quirky sense of humor. He carefully cast the actors to fit the comedic qualities of each character.
Last week, Oct. 20 through Oct. 22, the theater students hand-picked by Walling, performed “Is He Dead?” in honor of Walling.
The play centered around a talented artist, his idiosyncratic friends, his love and her family. To add an additional challenge, the characters spoke with accents from French to German, Irish to Dutch and even threw in a slick American salesman.
Jean-Francois Millet the artist, (played expertly by Matthew Zaleewski), painted like Monet — yet no one would pay the price he needed for his paintings.
Millet and his friends, Agamemnon (Chicago) Buckner (Christian Teauge), Hans (Dutchy) Von Bismarck (Dexter Tiffany) and Phelim O’Shaughnessy (Zach Brooks) owed evil art dealer Bastien Andre (Jack Randall) a lot of money.
The four friends hoped that Millet’s paintings would sell for enough to pay off their debt to Andre.
In another twist to the plot, not only did Millet and friends owe money to Andre, so did Millet’s girlfriend Marie Leroux (Crystal Kubby), her father Papa Leroux (Kendall Dugan) and sister Cecile Leroux (Taylor Keeney).
Millet had a lot of pressure to sell his paintings for the best price or not only would Andre take his paintings, he planned on only valuing those paintings at 100 francs each — he would force Marie to marry him.
Mon deux! Quite the pickle.
To get out of the mess, Millet’s friends figured out from a potential buyer that if Millet died, his paintings would be worth much more.
So they hatched up a plan that put Millet in a dress and Marie into despair making even the Queen of France and the Sultan of Turkey believe Millet had died, while his twin sister came to settle his estate.
The play explores cross-dressing, mistaken identities and deception, while relying on farce, burlesque and social satire for humor.
The interesting thing about Twain’s play, he wrote it in 1898, but it was not published until 2003.
Scholars knew the play existed, but it wasn’t until a scholar took the plays from Twain’s papers housed at the University of California, Berkeley and turned them into a book, they languished. Playwright David Ives then adopted “Is He Dead?” for the modern stage. It was first performed in 2007.
Director and head of the Theatre Department Kathy Siler, worked herself to the bone both directing the actors and technical support. She has said numerous times the drama department is a two-person job.
The district will seek a cohort for Siler, but for now, she’s running the whole show.
For the entire fall break in October, Siler worked every day to paint and put together the striking set — a project Walling dearly loved doing.
Walling had a talent for set design. The Town of Payson used him for the three years it participated in the Fiesta Bowl Parade winning top awards each year.