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THEATER REVIEW : Grim Reaper Visits Thousand Oaks Stage : Despite problems, 'Death Takes a Holiday' still manages to hold up rather well and provides amusing entertainment.


The Grim Reaper literally takes three days off in "Death Takes a Holiday," a comic allegory adapted for the screen in 1934 after a long Broadway run. A stage production is now playing at the Arts Council Center in Thousand Oaks.

Unable to understand why people fear him, Death takes human form and visits Duke Lambert's castle, where several guests have already gathered. Death mingles with the crowd after telling the Duke that revealing his identity will lead to severe consequences. The group includes washed-up royalty, a couple of old soldiers, the Duke's family and his son's best friend. Death becomes quite a pleasant fellow, once he has traded his black robe and skull mask for a tuxedo and medallion that make him look like the sommelier in a cheesy Hungarian restaurant. And while quizzing the guests he becomes more human himself, eventually falling in love.

It is clear from the beginning that the Duke is hardly a man to trust with a secret, so suspense comes as the audience waits for him to break down and tell everybody that Death walks among them disguised as a Russian diplomat, a careless revelation that could lead to the elimination of several future generations of Eurotrash.

The play is essentially a drawing-room comedy, a style that seems to thwart modern actors: it's hard to be simultaneously bubbly and jaded--not to mention literate--in that Noel Coward-Nick and Nora Charles kind of way. The current company makes a game try at it under Bianca Jansen's direction, for the most part keeping the mood and the mystery up.

There's lots that's wrong with the play, which was adapted by Walter Ferris from the Italian original by Alberto Castella. Characters come and go with no reason (several are inexplicably missing at the big showdown), a couple are given virtually nothing to do, and you know that something's wrong when Death is the most sympathetic character in the group.

Death is portrayed by Michael Jordan, a rare leading role from a man who usually directs but occasionally takes high-profile cameo roles in plays directed by himself and others. Sergio Bertolli is Duke Lambert, married to Carol Arias as Duchess Stephanie, and father to Corrado (Don Fehmel). The guests include the Princess of San Luca (Maggie White, who you know is a princess because she wears her jeweled tiara around the castle), and her gloomy daughter, Grazia (Jennifer Marie Lester), who in a more contemporary play would be dressed in black and remain locked in her room playing her Morrissey or Nine Inch Nails albums.

Other guests include Corrado's friends Eric (Keith Cable) and Rhoda Fenton (Judi Berry), socialite Alda (Suzanne McNabb-Tobin), and retired soldiers Baron Cesarea (Al Siffer) and Major Whitread (Max Hirschman) of the Foreign Legion. The castle is staffed by butler Fedele (Christopher R. Blair) and maid Cora (Melissa S. Aries), who are among the missing at showdown time.

Holding up rather well, considering its age, "Death Takes a Holiday" is amusing entertainment, appropriate for teen-agers and older adults, especially at Halloween time.


* WHAT: "Death Takes a Holiday."

* WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7, concluding Oct. 23.

* WHERE: Arts Council Center, 482 Greenmeadow Road, Thousand Oaks.

* COST: Adults, $8; students, seniors $7.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call 499-4355.

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