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THEATER REVIEW

New Life and a 'Death' in Santa Barbara

March 24, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

SANTA BARBARA — "Death Takes a Holiday" is not a metaphoric title. Death, a guy in a cape, literally decides to take time off in this creaky play by Italian Alberto Casella, which was adapted for a 1929 Broadway audience by Walter Ferris. In the story, Death assumes human form for three days, during which time no living soul need fear for its mortality. Even a man who jumps off the Eiffel Tower bounces and lives, as Death is too busy sampling life's pleasure to pay any mind.

Why artistic director Peter Hall has chosen this play to inaugurate California's newest theater company, the Lobero Stage Company in downtown Santa Barbara, is, like the play's main character, more than a bit mystifying.

"Death" is a tepid drawing room comedy injected with schoolboy romanticism and pretentious aspirations to ponder life and the great beyond. For his weekend off, Death chooses a gloomy castle called Villa Happiness, owned by Duke Lambert (Peter Michael Goetz). The duke is having people in for the weekend--a good thing as his own family is frightfully dull. They are the personality-free duchess (Sue Ann Gilfillan) and their son, the earnest, hotheaded and not especially bright Corrado (David Mitchell). Their friends include Corrado's intended, Grazia (Merrilee McCommas), who is supposed to be loveliness and sensitivity personified, but who comes off as missing some huge chunk of brain matter.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 25, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Artistic director--Peter Hunt is the artistic director of Lobero Stage Company and director of its first production, "Death Takes a Holiday." His name was incorrect in a review of the show in Monday's Calendar.

Underlining the preposterous nature of her lines, McCommas speaks as if her entire part were written with ellipses, to be filled in as portentously as possible. Because she is so sensitive, Grazia is the first to sense the presence of Death, in the form of a chill wind. In a high-pitched tremolo, she metes out: "I . . . don't . . . know what it was. It was something cold . . . and so terrible. . . . An icy wind touched me . . . but . . . it wasn't a wind . . . and I saw . . . a shadow! . . . And yet it wasn't a shadow!"

Hall's slow-paced approach asks us to swallow whole the faux profundity of the play, which is couched in an antique hand-wringing language that cries out for some camp.

*

The big guy is played by Duncan Regehr, who makes Death tall and stately (you really don't want a short Death), with sad eyes, strong cheekbones and a good haircut. He assumes the guise of a Russian Prince and promptly hits on every young lady at the villa that weekend, scaring them away one by one. (He's a bit of a cradle-snatcher, ignoring the women closer to his own age altogether.)

But then there's Grazia. Only Grazia is sensitive enough to understand this sweet-talker who, rather like Barnabas Collins in "Dark Shadows," is looking for a mistress for all eternity. Once smitten, she starts following him in a trance, like the dog in the RCA ad that will only listen to the sound of its master's voice. Their love affair is a day at the Barbara Cartland institute. He: "Your hands are white jasmine flowers in the summer." She: "You seem like the mystery that's just beyond sight . . . and sound. . . . "

The only actor to acknowledge how banal it all is and find his way to comedy is Goetz, as the duke. He sometimes emits high-pitched squeals of frustration, a la Moe or Curly when confronted with a scary figure in a black cloak. The estimable George Gaynes has a moment or two as a dying baron given new vigor by Death's vacation, and the usually lovely Caroline Lagerfelt, as Grazia's mother, is constricted by a bad wig and ungainly gown, and her lines aren't so good either.

The refurbished theater looks starkly handsome, and Hugh Landwehr's solid set looks handsome in it. Obviously a lot of hope attends the opening of a new theater company, and the Lobero has some strong physical assets and a ready community. Now it only needs a worthwhile play.

* "Death Takes a Holiday," Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara, Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends April 6. $26.50-$33.50. (805) 963-0761. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Diana Michelle Skolnik: Cora

Derek Murcott: Fedele

Peter Michael Goetz: Duke Lambert

Jana Robbins: Alda

Sue Ann Gilfillan: Duchess Stephanie

Caroline Lagerfelt: Princess of San Luca

George Gaynes: Baron Cesarea

Elizabeth Anne Dickinson: Rhoda Fenton

Bill Brochtrup: Eric Fenton

David Mitchell: Corrado

Merrilee McCommas: Grazia

Duncan Regehr: Prince Sirki

James McDonnell: Major Whitread

A Lobero Stage Company production. By Alberto Casella. Adapted by Walter Ferris. Directed by Peter Hunt. Sets Hugh Landwehr. Costumes Noel Taylor. Lights Rui Rita. Sound Michael Maloy.

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