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Love doesn't make it in 'Death Takes a Holiday'

Stephen Bruun as Prince Sirki and Jennifer Harvey as Alda in a scene from "Death Takes a Holiday," at Laurel Mill Playhouse through Nov. 23.
Stephen Bruun as Prince Sirki and Jennifer Harvey as Alda in a scene from "Death Takes a Holiday," at Laurel Mill Playhouse through Nov. 23. (Photo courtesy Laurel Mill Playhouse)

Death is alive and quite well on Main Street as Laurel MillPlayhouse presents the 1929 stylized melodrama, "Death Takes a Holiday," written by Walter Ferris and directed by Mark T. Allen.

Based on Italian Alberto Casella's post-World War I "La Morte in Vacanza," the classic precedes Ferris's writing of screenplays, which include two Shirley Temple films and "SwissFamily Robinson."

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The show personifies Death posing as a mortal prince (temporarily halting anyone dying anywhere) toexplore what it means to be human. Of course, he falls in love with a beautiful young noblewoman.

Produced here by Maureen C. Rogers, of Laurel (who appears as the Princess of San Luca and Grazia's mother), the not-so-simple love story unfolds in an Italian castle belonging to the Duke of Lambert, played by Playhouse veteran Larry Simmons.

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An exceptional set, designed and built by Allen with assistance from James Raymond and other cast members, creates an artful backdrop and the show's strongest element.

The great hall is opulent, well furnished and carefully detailed with elegant wallpaper and wood trim. Upstage behind the interior, a beautifully crafted moon sets an ominous tone and the garden (which is not revealeduntil Act 2) will visually speak volumes as the plot progresses.

Jean Berard, along with Rogers, Maureen Roul, and member sof the cast, have added richperiod costumes to the illusion, creating some lovely eye candy such as Shadow's grim reaper ensemble, which is a knockout.

Allen rounds out his cast with Lori Bruun playing Cora, Stephen Bruun as Prince Sirki/Shadow (Death), Tim Evans as Baron Cesarea, Jennifer Harvey as Alda, David McCrary as Fideleand Major Whitread, Eli Pendry as Corrado, Raymond as Eric Fenton, Roult as the Duchess Stephanie, Alexis Thompson as Grazia and Laurel resident Terra Vigil Wynn as Roda Fenton.

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As the show opens, the Duke has invited a group of nobles tovisit. They begin arriving and telling tales of strange goings on such as anear-fatal car accident, an unidentified intruderand a mysterious shadow.

As Shadow, Death reveals himself privately to Duke Lambert that evening and reveals his intent to mingle with the Duke's guests disguised as Prince Sirki. He commands Lambert to secrecy and agrees to leave the family and guests unharmed at the end of three days.

Over the course of this "holiday," Prince Sirki manages toterrify Lambert, antagonize the young men and seduce several women while exploring his capacity for human love. And he pursues the ethereal Grazia, whois already engaged to Corrado.

As the Duke's son, Corrado, Pendry makes an impressive young nobleman. He and Raymond as his sidekick, Eric, deliver consistently convincing characters with youthful vitality and charm.

Simmons' underplayed performance as Duke Lambert also warrant sclose attention. The depth of the actor's subtle portrayal is most visible in the stiff body posture and tightly controlled facial expressions of a man almost frozen with terror.

Evans and Rogers as the elder Baron Cesarea and the Princesscreate some charismatic moments in an amusing side plot as Cesarea discovers his libido suddenly renewed.

And as the Princess' daughter, Grazia, Thompson's feet appear to never touch ground. She waxes elusive as a fiancé, and viewers may wonder ifbeing hard to get is the lure thatdraws Corrado and Prince Sirki to the beautiful young woman.

Lead Stephen Bruun, whose acting is very good throughout, achieves a suitably commanding presence as Shadow and Prince Sirki. But lowering hisvocal tones when he first appears (Shadow is fully costumed and the audiencehas yet to see the actor's face) would alleviate any confusion that Allen  intends to present the play as a parody instead of a melodrama.

But a melodrama it is, and Bruun claims the stage for the rest of the play in a magnetic performance that requires skill and range fromthe actor.

As a love story, Allen's "Death Takes a Holiday" at Laurel Mill Playhouse is a little too uneven to convince. Still, Allen's able cast manages to thrust a novel and philosophical approach to the concepts of love and death to the forefront of an attractive production.

"Death Takes a Holiday" continues Friday and Saturday, Nov. 21 and 22 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 23 at 2 p.m. General admission is $20. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors, 65 and over, pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

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