Actors frequently speak of performers who "raise the bar," whose personal performance standards are so high that they challenge - and inspire - their co-stars to match them. In Death Takes a Holiday, the comedy/drama/supernatural romance currently playing at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre, James Driscoll raises the bar so high it's practically celestial.
This isn't to say that Driscoll is the whole show. But in portraying the physical embodiment of Death in Walter Ferris' adaptation of Alberto Casella's novel, Driscoll is so suave, comical, and marvelously insinuating that it's nearly impossible to focus on anybody else. The only reason you occasionally do is because, more often than not, his 10 castmates - including some truly formidable acting talent - are setting off plenty of performance fireworks of their own. If you have any interest in the art of acting, you owe it to yourself to see Death Takes a Holiday; director Tom Morrow's wonderful production demonstrates just what can happen when a performer truly raises the bar, and when his fellow performers aren't afraid of meeting him there.
It does take a few scenes, though, for the show to find its footing. In the sitting room of a European castle, circa 1927, we are quickly introduced to the Duke and Duchess de Catolica (Greg Kerr and Diane Greenwood), and their son, Corrado (Kevin Maynard). Corrado is in love with Grazia of San Luca (Miranda Lipes), whose mother, Marie (Jackie Skiles), enjoys the flirtations of the elder Baron Cesarea (Dave Rash). The baron is father-in-law to Alda (Molly McLaughlin), who is conducting an affair with Eric Fenton (Jason Platt), brother to Rhoda (Tyla Cole). And as all of these relationships are revealed in the play's first 15 minutes, you can be forgiven for being confused about who, exactly, everyone is. (Even by the show's end, I never quite gleaned the Fentons' relation to one another, and at different times thought they were husband and wife, or perhaps father and daughter.)
Yet the problem with Holiday's opening scenes isn't its onslaught of characters so much as their stage composition. Whenever five or more actors appear simultaneously, which happens frequently in the first act, Morrow is careful to position them so that audience members - no matter where they're seated in Richmond Hill's theatre-in-the-round - will have a fine view of at least three performers, a smart (and generous) move on the director's part.
But this staging also comes with a built-in limitation, as the actors themselves, positioned several feet away from one another, don't have much chance to interact; whenever a character speaks, the others have little to do but stare at her/him and wait for the line to end. During these expository sequences, when we could be getting a sense of the characters' relationships to one another, nothing much seems to be happening internally, and on Thursday night, at least, the pauses between the actors' early badinage was just tardy enough to be noticeable; the play didn't quite feel like life.
All that changed, ironically enough, with the appearance of Death.
From the moment Driscoll's character enters - deciding he needs a break from grim-reaping, and choosing the castle as his three-day vacation spot - Death Takes a Holiday emerges as a thoroughly entertaining, and unexpectedly thought-provoking, meditation on the hypnotic pull of death, and this is primarily due to the actor's incredible verve and unsettling charm; Driscoll feels like someone you actually would blindly follow into the Great Unknown. His readings have a mellifluous grace and a slightly bemused edge - Death is continually fascinated by the vagaries of human emotion - and he has the ability to make throwaway dialogue laugh-out-loud funny through sheer inflection. (Driscoll earns an enormous laugh with Death's giddy, plot-establishing remark, "I'm on a holiday!")
Driscoll, though, is also frequently, intimidatingly short-tempered (this is not a figure you want to upset), and his romantic encounters have a brazenly erotic pull - Holiday's seduction scenes are almost startlingly intimate. It's a true knockout of a performance. In Ferris' vision, Death is less a full-blooded character than a really clever conceit, but Driscoll plays the role with such exhilarating brio that it stands as a triumphant portrayal; the standing ovation that greeted his curtain call was richly deserved.
In fairness, that ovation could easily have been for the cast en masse. If you've followed their recent stage work, the greatness of some performers here comes as no surprise; Greenwood is so thoroughly in character that she's riveting even when - as happens in the final act - nearly 30 minutes pass without her saying a word, and Platt's naturalistic intensity is, once again, a thrill to behold. (Conversing with his lover, who's become bored with their relationship, Platt's Eric Fenton says, "I'm sorry if I'm not ... magnificent enough," and we think, "Oh yes you are.")
Yet the entire ensemble is in stellar form. There are subtle, unaffectedly touching performances by Maynard and Skiles, and boisterous, exuberant ones by Kerr and Rash, whose irascible, pre-Viagra pronouncements continually cracked up the crowd. The ever-magnificent John VanDeWoestyne shows up as an army major haunted by death - and by Death - and gives his readings a hard-won authority that's truly inspiring.
And as the women who engage in verbal pas de deux with Death, Lipes, McLaughlin, and Cole effortlessly convince you that their characters not only find Death fascinating, but almost unbearably enticing; their curiosity, fear, and what can only be called hunger are palpable forces, and each performer enjoys long moments where she matches Driscoll's exquisite focus and fervor. With Death Takes a Holiday, Morrow and his cast have turned an engaging, amusing, thoughtful play into a veritable cornucopia of acting treats, and none tastier than its star's; Death may be something to fear, but in Driscoll's hands, it's also something to cherish.
For tickets, call (309) 944-2244.