Norbert Leo Butz grew up a few blocks from the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Mo.
"Watching tourist steamboats coming up and down the river was just part of what we saw all the time," says Butz in his cozy dressing room at the Lyceum, where he stars in the delicious comedy Is He Dead?
"And all of our steamboats had names like the Twain, the Sam Clemens. Then we'd do field trips to Hannibal, Mo., about a hour and a half up the river, and see the Becky Thatcher house and so on--it's this kitschy little town, but those characters were very real to us from a very young age: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe, The Widow Douglas."
To that pantheon of Twain creations, we can add at least two more: penniless French painter Jean-Francois Millet and his carefree sister, Daisy Tillou. These fictive siblings drive the plot of Is He Dead?
, a never-before-produced farce Twain wrote for the stage in 1898, which was only recently uncovered and given a nip-tuck makeover by David Ives (All in the Timing
, Don Juan in Chicago
Butz plays them both: The play's conceit is that Millet fakes his own death to drive up the price of his paintings, then impersonates a surviving sister, Daisy, to manage the "late" Millet's affairs. Indeed, Butz is in full 19th-century female drag as Daisy for the majority of the show, and he's hilarious.
The premise recalls a host of classic farces, many of them familiar to Butz--who, before he became the Tony- and Astaire Award-winning star of such shows as The Last Five Years
, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
, cut his teeth on repertory roles at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
"It's an old, old tradition," says Butz, in person a much calmer and more collected figure than he cuts onstage. "Gender in comedy is a very fluid thing. You go back to the Greeks, to Lysistrata
, where the women won't have sex until the men stop fighting. The women suddenly have all this power, but they were played by men--and the irony of that would not have been lost, I don't think, even on an ancient Greek audience.
"Shakespeare did the same thing--men dressed up as women, women dressed up as men. The audience enjoyed watching the character put on that mask and then find a freedom with that mask."
The fluidity of gender in comedy may be a laughing matter, Butz feels, but it has bigger implications.
"Mid-19th-century women weren't seen as human beings but as things to decorate," Butz says of the 1840s period in which Is He Dead?
is set. "And not just Twain, but all of these playwrights throughout history who have put men in drag, they liberate the image of the woman, theatrically. By having a man play a woman, it frees up the movements of how women were supposed to behave in that earlier period."
This applies in spades to Daisy, who first appears awkward in her corsets, wig and heels (because, of course, she's being played by a man) but then, by the second, fairly revels in "her" feminine wiles. Butz says doesn't have to work too hard to locate the awkwardness.
"It doesn't feel very natural to be up there wearing 19th-century petticoats and corsets and heels and makeup," Butz says. "So I just let that natural discomfort inform the way that I move. Actually, now I am getting quite comfortable in it, so I'm reproducing my initial feeling of discomfort. We rehearsed for four or five weeks, and I spent about five hours a day in a mock costume with a corset, and it became really important for me to learn to move in it really well before I could then take it apart and re-learn how to do it clumsily."
To create the more fully womanly Daisy of the second act--three months later, after the fake-death scheme has worked so well that it requires Millet-as-Daisy to be "on" all the time--Butz didn't look to famous man-in-drag performances to inspire him.
"I was not thinking Milton Berle or Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot
," Butz says. "I tried to think of actual women. I put that dress on for the first time, and I looked an awful lot like my sister. She's a very curvy girl; she's got that healthy German stock. And when I put that dress on and I saw the width of my shoulders, and the double-E Styrofoam cups I've got under the dress, I looked much like my sister. She's a very independent woman in her mid-30s, so I used that as a model."
He did have some iconic female images in mind, too, but not necessarily from comedies.
"When I first read the play, I thought, 'She's really a great feminist. She smokes. She's unmarried. She's had many, many lovers. She's had slathers of children and yet seems not tied down to the idea of motherhood at all. She's incredibly wealthy, a self-made millionairess.
"But she's very tempestuous and passionate; I wanted her to be sexy. I've always loved the Australian actress Judy Davis, and I was thinking of other sort of handsome women--women like Barbara Stanwyck, who to my mind was never a beauty but was always very powerful. It seems that if women are not, at least by Hollywood standards, traditionally beautiful, they always play those more complicated, maybe more neurotic, more interesting women. So I definitely had that type of woman in mind."
He also had Twain and the Mississippi in mind, even if the play is ostensibly set in Paris.
"There's no sense in me playing some sort of French-accented thing," Butz admits. "Twain was American, and though he loved the French, he also made fun of them. The structure of the play is very conventional, but I think the thing people are hearing in it is that Twain sensibility, that sardonic wit, which is his own stamp."
Though Ives has deftly interjected some contemporary touches and streamlined the story, the show has a lot of Twain in it, says Butz, whose dressing room table is piled with Twain paperbacks. And it's not just the good jokes, either.
"All of the nationality jokes, all of the accent humor--that's all Twain," Butz says with an indulgent smile. "Like having the German say, 'Don't vorry, the vurst is yet to come,' while he holds up a big liverwurst. All of those groaners are Twain. He loved a bad joke. But also, all of the relationships are straight from the play."
The relationship that excites Butz the most, though, exists in every play, if it's done right.
"When I'm in an audience, I love for there to be an understanding between the actors, the director and the audience that we're all watching a play in a theatre," says Butz, who as Daisy addresses whole monologues and many winking asides to the audience of Is He Dead?
. "We are decidedly not in a movie theatre or in front of the television. And that kind of visceral communication only happens in theatre."
It happens whenever Butz is onstage, no question.
For more information about Is He Dead?, go here.