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THEATER REVIEW : Area's College Stages Offer Diverse Shows : 'Arms and the Man,' 'La Vie Parisienne' and 'Minor Demons' will close on Sunday.


Three openings last weekend hint at the variety of theatrical productions presented at local colleges. Two are period costume shows. Two are issue-oriented pieces, of which one is a drama and one is a comedy. And one of the three is an English-language adaptation of a French operetta. Two are quite good; one's an honorable miss. And all three close this Sunday.

Ventura College's production of George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man" and Moorpark College's version of the Jacques Offenbach operetta "La Vie Parisienne" are the costume shows; in Thousand Oaks, Cal Lutheran University is mounting the contemporary drama "Minor Demons."

Written by Bruce Graham and first presented by a regional theater in Philadelphia, "Minor Demons" reads more like a TV movie than a play: Lawyer Deke Winters, his life in shambles after a high-profile career in the Big City, returns home to work in a small, local firm. There, he almost immediately becomes involved in a murder case that pits him against his boyhood best friend, now the town's chief of police.

Defending an accused rapist-murderer, Winters stumbles on a technicality that can get his client off; a procedural error by the chief, who fears disgrace if the mistake is made public. Despite his claim to the contrary, the suspect may well be guilty. So is Winters' obligation to his client, or to the community at large?

Shaw's "Arms and the Man" is a satirical look at war. A Swiss mercenary fighting in the Serbian army hides out in the home of the commander of the enemy Bulgarians. There, the soldier disrupts the household, while exposing fighting as foolishness.

And the adaptation of "La Vie Parisienne," with a new book and lyrics by Phil Park, takes a look at 19th-Century Parisian society, focusing on a couple of genteel bounders in search of an evening's romance.

For most audiences, "Minor Demons" will be easiest to grasp, and it's an interesting couple of hours distinguished by some fine acting. Especially notable in that respect are Kevin P. Kern as attorney Winters, newly dried-out, divorced and trying to escape his former life, and Christian Isley as the tormented teen who may have committed a vicious murder. Among the supporting cast are Josh Green as the well-meaning police chief, and Kelly Regina Culwell as the hometown lawyer who first sees Winters as an interloper and a threat, and then--told you this sounds like a TV movie!--as a potential romantic interest.

Ken Gardner, chair of the university's drama department, directs a smooth production that's only slightly hampered by the inclusion of some projected images that are more distracting than edifying.

Over in Moorpark, the college is presenting one of its two or three annual musical productions under the direction of veteran faculty member Marilyn Anderson. She has a gift for unearthing rarely done operettas and finding singers capable of performing them. As a result, other than the odd Gilbert and Sullivan work produced elsewhere, Moorpark College is the unlikely operetta hub of Ventura County.

The current version of "La Vie Parisienne" is evidently quite different from the 1866 original; not only has Phil Park altered the libretto and lyrics and Ronald Hanmer adapted the music, but director Anderson has also wrought her own trims and other changes.

What's left is some lilting music, colorful costumes and this: After being discouraged in the romantic pursuit of the same woman, Raoul and Bobinet, described as "men about Paris," decide to redirect their attentions to "the ladies of society." Raoul's first target is a visiting baroness; his first chore, of course, is to separate her from the baron. In the meantime, a visiting Brazilian millionaire is in earnest pursuit of Gabrielle, a glove-maker who numbers Raoul among her clients. High jinks ensue.

Raymond M. Hebel and David Milligan portray Raoul and Bobinet, with Cecelia Lopez Brinkley as Metalla, the coquettish woman who prompted the redirection of their attentions but who keeps popping up at generally inopportune times. Andrew Kreigel and Mark Tortorici have several entertaining moments in the play's most comic roles (the Brazilian and Marcel, a maitre d'hotel). Anderson herself appears rather briefly as the baroness, with Andrew Brasted as the blustery baron, set for a night on the town without the baroness to distract him from his own amorous adventures.

Julie Robles, an opera singer who last appeared on the Moorpark stage as Mabel in the college's "Pirates of Penzance," is seen and heard here as the fetching Gabrielle.

Daryl Archibald, who has worked as Anderson's pianist and musical director for several productions, is here abetted by an effective six-piece orchestra.

Usually dependable for worthy productions, Ventura College has misstepped with its ill-conceived "Arms and the Man."

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