Physical comedy takes center stage at Guild, Hilberry; laughter reigns

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Alan Ellias (seated) joins cast members Paul Bruce (left) and Brian Townsend in Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” at the Players Guild of Dearborn.

By Sue Suchyta
The Players Guild of Dearborn continues its 83nd season with the recently discovered Mark Twain comedy, “Is He Dead?” The play was adapted for the stage by David Ives. The show, which opened Friday, will run for two more weekends: Jan. 22 to 24 and Jan. 29 to 31. Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m.

Jean-François Millet, a gifted young painter, is in love with Marie Leroux. He is also in debt to a villainous art dealer, Bastien André. André forecloses on Millet, and threatens the artist with debtor’s prison unless Marie marries him. Millet realizes that the only way he can pay his debts and save Marie and her family from André is to die, as it is only dead painters who achieve fame and fortune. With the help of three friends, Millet fakes his death and prospers, all while posing as his sister, the Widow Tillou. Now a rich “widow,” his problems only continue to mount, and Millet realizes he must find a way to get out of the dress, return to life, and marry Marie!

The show is brilliantly directed by Mary Beth Kinnell of Dearborn Heights, who makes the most of the comic moments, with Tim Carney of Livonia as assistant director. Stan Guarnelo of Dearborn Heights produced the show.

The show is anchored by Brian Townsend of Dearborn as the gifted but under-appreciated painter Jean-Francois Millet, and the scheming trio of Phil Booth of Dearborn as O’Shaughnessy, Alan Ellias of Farmington Hills as Dutchy, and Alex Godjov of Redford as Chicago. The quartet pulls off the comic core of the story, and their timing, physical comedy and first rate acting present an entertaining show destined to become an audience favorite.

Paul Bruce of Dearborn earned waves of laughter in multiple cameo roles, which include a pretentious art collector and a long-suffering butler.

Kori Bielaniec of Dearborn, as Cecile, provides a comic counterpart to Townsend’s gender subterfuge by posing as a French policeman to learn what her intended is doing.
Sydnee Dombrowski is sweet yet canny as Marie Leroux, Millet’s fiancée, and Jim Kirwan earns his share of laughs as the unscrupulous Bastien Andre, a nefarious businessman.

Others in the strong ensemble include John Hutchison of Dearborn as the Sultan of Turkey; Patricia LaFramboise of Northville as Madame Caron; Scott Rider of Lincoln Park as the Emperor of Russia; Nancy Schuster of Livonia as Madame Bathilde and Tom Sparrow of Allen Park as Papa Leroux.

The costumes are a delight to see, but Townsend in a dress is worth the price of admission alone if only for the belly laughter his transparent disguise supplies. The make-up crew has their hands full with a clever complement of wigs, mustaches and character make-up. The set is first rate, changing from a cut rate flat to a well-appointed apartment between acts. The polished production values make the audience forget they aren’t at a professional venue.

Tickets are $15. Student discounts of $2 (with valid identification) and group discounts are available. For more information, call the Guild ticket line at (313) 561-TKTS, or go to

The theater is at 21730 Madison in Dearborn, southwest of the intersection of Monroe Street and Outer Drive. The venue is handicap accessible.

The Hilberry, Wayne State University’s graduate theater program, kicks off the new year with, “The Servant of Two Masters” performed in traditional Commedia dell’Arte. The production runs in rotating repertory through March 27.

The plot focuses on an underpaid yet wily Italian servant, Arlecchino, who presses his luck in the show with plentiful laughter resulting.

Unsatisfied with the food he’s paid, Arlecchino seeks a second master. Two jobs mean twice as much food, but also twice as much work. He thinks his duplicity won’t be discovered. However, when his two masters seek each other out, comedy ensues.

Commedia dell’Arte is very physical form of theater where masks force actors to project their characters’ emotions through their body. The characters leap and tumble and use stock gags (Lazzi), large gestures and slapstick. This Italian comedy format known as Commedia dell’Arte was used by professional actors throughout Italy in the 16th century. Despite its resemblance to modern improv, Commedia dell’Arte is a highly disciplined ensemble exercise.

In preparation for directing “The Servant of Two Masters,” Lavinia Hart and dance choreographer Nira Pullin went to London, England over the summer to study with Commedia expert Barry Grantham. Grantham’s workshops are attended by professional actors, performers, directors and teachers in all forms of theater from Shakespeare to circus and variety, and traditional to cutting-edge, mime and physical theater.

Hart also employed the talents of local physical comedian Rick Carver, who specializes in the physical comedy techniques of juggling, pantomime, stilt walking, and tumbling. Carver worked side by side with the actors during the rehearsal process to oversee the physical demands of the scenes.

“The Servant of Two Masters” includes all the stock characters audiences familiar with Commedia have become accustomed.

The cast includes Jason Cabral as Arlecchino, Christopher R. Ellis as Pantalone, Lorelei Sturm as Clarice, Andrew Papa as Doctor Paedagogus, Erman Jones as Silvio, Sara Hymes as Beatrice Rasponi, Jordan Whalen as Florindo Aretusi, Safiya Johnson as Mama Grisanti, Christina Flynn as Columbina, and, as Zanni, Alan Ball, Rob Pantano, Carollette Phillips, Peter Prouty, Samantha L. Rosentrater, Brian P. Sage, Dave Toomey, and Justin Vanden Heuvel.

The Hilberry is at 4841 Cass Ave. in Detroit. For tickets, call the box office at 313-577-2972, or go to

Mario’s Restaurant, 4222 Second Ave., offers a 15 percent discount on the entrée and offers a free round-trip shuttle to the theater. For reservations call (313) 832-1616 for go to