Mark Twain’s farce, here adapted by David Ives, follows the imagined plight of painter Jean-François Millet (Perry Ojeda) — whose works loom over Stephen Gifford’s stylish and utilitarian set design. (“The Gleaners” is probably Millet’s most famous painting, capturing the rustic humanity of French peasants working in the fields.) A young artist named Agamemnon Buckner (Brian Stanton) helps fathom the plot to help generate income for a garrett of young starving artists in a province outside Paris in 1846. If they can spread the news that Millet is near death, the value of his paintings could go through the roof — as opposed to lying in their current marsh while the painter is known to be alive. So Millet fakes his own illness and death, returning into society in drag as his own grieving sister. Millet leaves behind an equally grieving sweetheart, Marie Leroux (Suzanne Petrela), whose failure to recognize her beau-in-a-dress adds to the farce. Stir in a villain plucked from melodrama — an art dealer, naturally — named Bastien Andre (Steve Marvel), who tries to usurp the “dead” painter’s works in exchange for the exorbitant interest he’s owed on a loan he made to Millet. Joe Fria is marvelously, physically odd in an array of roles, prancing with his rear end extended backward and out of joint, in roles ranging from Englishmen to the King of France. By Act 2, Gifford’s set has melted into a series of doors lining the back of the stage — all there to be slammed. During one entrance, poor Agamemnon got stuck when he slammed a door upon entering, leaving his coattails jammed in the now shut door. It just took a second of him groping helplessly for forward motion before he realized his plight, reopened the door behind him and set himself free, while the audience dissolved in paroxysms of laughter. Even the planned humor, under Shashin Desai’s gorgeous staging, was a bouquet of completely stupid wit, based on mistaken identities, a coffin filled with bricks and pungent lindberger cheese, in order to fool the authorities. Millet, pretending to be his own sister, meets his oblivious sweetheart and plants on her a lingering kiss. Goodness, Marie exclaims, after this seeming display of lesbian lust, “You must stop smoking.” International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through May 24. (562) 436-4610.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: May 1. Continues through May 24, 2009

LA Weekly