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“Death Takes a Holiday”

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Stage West’s upcoming production, “Death Takes a Holiday,” has been described by one podcaster as an “allegorical fantasy drama with touches of horror, humor, and romance.” Paul Wade, the director of Stage West’s reincarnation of the play, calls it “a melodrama that deals with large philosophical questions in a large, over-the-top way that helps bring levity and chaos.”

The play takes place in the 1930s at the villa of an Italian duke. Besides his family, there are a number of guests staying at his home. One guest, Death, is uninvited and not welcome. He comes to the duke’s villa because he wants to take a break from bringing people to their “final destination.” He wants to see into the human psyche. In particular, he wants to find out why people fear him. Death reveals himself to Duke Lambert and asks if he can stay at the duke’s home incognito for three days so he can get some answers. The duke reluctantly says, “Yes,” at which point Death transforms himself into the mysterious and charming Prince Sirki.

The play is thought-provoking and entertaining, with the entire cast giving virtuoso, nuanced performances. Cameron Gotay, who plays Death, finds the part to be challenging yet enjoyable. He explains how he approached the role. “There are many layers to this character, and each one is as complicated as the next. I tried to tap into something ethereal and otherworldly. I not only have to act larger than life, but I also have to imagine how this being would act amongst those he looks down upon. It is the most challenging character I’ve played, and I had a ton of fun doing so.”

Cameron got into theatre because he was a movie buff. He became interested in how actors were able to give such convincing performances, so he started emulating those actors. “Acting allows me to be as many people as I can be and go on so many different adventures. Being able to share this passion with so many like-minded people is rewarding. It’s my responsibility to make sure each character I play has clear motives. If I do my job properly, the audience should find something relatable about my performance.”

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Some of the humorous moments come when Death, posing as Prince Sirki, has his first taste of alcohol and other new experiences and has to cover up his lack of knowledge of worldly things.

Michelle Kienzle plays the duke’s wife, Maria. She is also the mother of Grazia, the young woman who falls in love with Prince Sirki. Michelle has been involved in theatre since she was in high school. Her favorite roles in community theatre were the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella” and Phillipa in Agatha Christie’s “A Murder is Announced.” She has also performed in an off-broadway production of “Shooting Star.” Michelle remarks, “I enjoy the creativity of acting, including the characterization process and the teamwork involved while on stage. I love telling a story through someone else’s perspective.”

Since the play takes place more than ninety years ago, an era very different from our own, Michelle studied women of that time period and the play’s geographical location to better understand her character. “I watched the movie and other videos so I could effectively convey the style and mannerisms of my character.”

Michelle describes Maria as multi-faceted, “a protective mother to Grazia and, at the same time, strong and willing to stand up to Death.”

There were several lines of dialogue that stood out−some humorous and some philosophical. For example, Baron Cesarea, an aging Casanova, played by Dalton Benson, remarks, “There is nothing like marriage to spoil the dreaming.” Grazia, the romantic, played by Brianna Spahn, comments, “Love is music. Love is beauty.”

One of the most outstanding features of this production, besides the acting and costumes, was the stage set. A lot of work went into making the set authentic-looking. Linda Dilts-Benson and Jay Ingle, along with their team, created the living room of a well-appointed villa. There was period furniture, an old-fashioned telephone, a crystal chandelier and other items that evoked the opulence and grandeur of the home. Every detail was covered, even down to the pictures hanging on the wall. You felt as if you were peeking in the window and looking at the characters as they interacted on stage.

Paul Wade, the director, utilized his many years of experience as an actor and as a director to create just the right tone for the play. “The biggest challenge was in finding the right balance. Since it is a melodrama, it has to be played in a very specific way. If played too big it becomes a farce; if played too straight it becomes a slog [an arduous effort].”

Any performance, especially one as polished as this one, requires weeks of rehearsal, and it can sometimes become frustrating for everyone involved, from the actors and the director to the stage crew. Repetition of lines until they’re as perfect as possible, developing and learning the blocking, listening for the cues−all these facets and more can make the process difficult if one isn’t dedicated to the project.

Paul remarks, “The most rewarding thing for me in this show, and any show I direct, is watching the actors buy into my vision and make it their own. This cast has done an amazing job in bringing my vision for this show to life.

“Death Takes a Holiday” premieres this weekend and continues the following weekend. Performances are March 15, 16, and 22 at 7:30 pm; March 17, 23 and 24 at 2:00 pm. *Note: There will be no evening performance on March 23. Tickets are available online at www.stagewestplayhouse.org. You can also purchase tickets by calling the box office at 352-683-5113.

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