by Doug Hamilton -
SGN Contributing Writer
THE LISBON TRAVIATA
RICHARD HUGO HOUSE
Through June 28
Giant pop-art black-and-white floor-to-ceiling graphics of Maria Callas literally glower over the set of Theatre22's production of Terrance McNally's The Lisbon Traviata. Two symmetrically placed panes of her face dominate the back walls, and a split panel flanks the stage, with the left-eye stage-left; the right-eye, stage-right. The result is an instant expectation of high-drama. And, right away we know the production values are top-shelf. Director/Scenic Designer Gerald B. Browning delivers the goods.
In the first act, the panels of Callas contrast with the otherwise Victorian fussiness of the character Mendy's apartment, nicely reflecting the eclecticism of '80s Manhattan, a world occupied elsewhere by luminaries such as Warhol, Basquiat and Liza. This apartment is the cocoon that the flamingly flamboyant Mendy, played by Eric Mulholland, seldom needs to leave. Mendy is the Auntie Mame of opera queens, and the world he occupies is contained in the sleeves of opera recordings that line the shelves, and lie in stacks on the tables and floor.
In Gay circles, everybody has a friend like Mendy. That person may not be obsessed by opera, but they are obsessed by something (most likely cocktails) that can serve as an escape hatch from an unkind reality, a world harsh to people of such heightened sensitivities. Eric's performance of Mendy takes the audience through the arc from the initial cringing at the stereotype, to fascination with the character, to a realization that as much as Mendy is over-the-top, he's that true, loyal friend with a heart of gold. There's still a tiny, itsy bitsy piece of unexplored territory in nelliness where Mulholland could take a deep breath, relax and go. But still, Mendy is a crowd favorite. The comic timing and believability in the character are entirely there.
Mendy's best friend, Stephen, is the fellow participant in the geekfest of opera fixation that constitutes their shared passion. The two discuss opera the way dispensary owners discuss strains of marijuana at Hempfest - obsessively, in finite detail, with an emphasis on the nuance of the levels of intoxicating mesmerization. When Stephen tells Mendy of the existence of a rare recording by Maria Callas in Lisbon (The Lisbon Traviata, that Mendy has never heard), it instantly becomes an object to covet, and Mendy comically fiends for the record throughout the rest of the first act. The copy is seemingly unattainable, even though Stephen has it in his apartment only eight blocks away.
Stephen, as portrayed by actor Daniel Christensen, is that tightly wound, perfectionist urban professional who shops at Barney's (and no doubt has a closet stocked head-to-toe with Teflon-like pieces from Kenneth Cole.) We have our Stephens in Seattle (think of Niles Crane in 'Frasier,' if that character had ever had the balls to come out as Gay.) Every taut, nervous twitch on stage portrays the bundle of angst wrapped inside the impermeable membrane of upper-class privilege that is Stephen's existence.
Stephen is nerdy, impeccable on the outside, seething on the inside just behind his designer eyeglasses. Daniel Christensen nails his performance as Stephen, unraveling like the insides of a pocket-watch during what turns out to be his break-up from his long-time relationship with a successful doctor named Michael. It is truly frightening to be an eternally boyish middle-aged Gay man losing his lover at the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York, and we in the audience are made to feel that.
Mike, or Michael as Stephen calls him, is the long-time companion Stephen is in the throes of letting go. Absent for all but a brief walk-on during the first act, Stephen and Mendy trash talk about the soon-to-be ex, and his trick for the night, Paul. Michael and Stephen are in that extremely messy part of a break-up, where they acknowledge the need to move on, but have yet to move out of their shared apartment.
Initially, Mike, as played by Sean P. O'Bannon seems rather bland. We are unsympathetic to him. Obviously, he must be the reason the two are splitsville. Mike's date for the night is the reason Stephen is not free to go back to his apartment. Stephen's date cancelling for the evening only compounds the problem. Maybe Mike is not such a bad guy after all, as toward the end of the first act he brings over a copy of Maria Callas singing 'La Traviata.' Unfortunately, it is the London recording (which, of course, is not Lisbon, and Mendy already has it.)
The sound engineering is an integral part of the staging of this production, and is handled with split-second precision as the audience is fed pieces of opera, pop music from the '80s, and voicemail messages centering on retrieving the copy of The Lisbon Traviata from Mike and Stephen's apartment. The hand guides the arm of the record player, the needle goes down, and the sound is there instantly, to the sound engineer's credit.
I watched during intermission as the set was struck for the second act. All the Victorian frilliness was removed from stage, until all that remained was the before-mentioned blow-up panels of Callas. The burgundy walls with wainscot were covered with panels of purple. A curtain is pulled back to reveal a breakfast bar in front of an efficiency kitchen. Black leather and chrome seating is moved in. Black modular shelving units crammed full of vinyl records and tape cassettes go in front of the purple walls. And finally, the props: empty beer cans, a pizza box, a jockstrap on the floor. The stage is set for the second act, which occurs in Mike and Stephen's apartment at 8 a.m. the next morning.
Whereas Mendy's apartment is charming and warm, Mike and Stephen's place is cold and sterile. Stephen returns home to find the mess of beer cans and discarded clothing, and soon learns that Paul the 'trick,' Mike's date from the night before, is still in the apartment. Awkward. Especially when the first time Stephen sees Paul, he's getting full-frontal Paul waltzing into the living room. Hmm& what can I say about the meat of this role? Definitely, it filled the jockstrap nicely once actor Kyle James Traver finally put it on.
The exchanges between Christensen as Stephen, and Traver as Paul were, expectedly, strained. I'm not sure how I feel about Paul, who is written as a Portuguese. Stephen tries to put a brave face on the exchange between them, trying to act flip and glib, briefly flirting with Paul while alone, but quickly backing off. I will give props to Kyle James Traver for bravely baring his body on stage. I'm not sure that the part of Paul, as written, ever gives this actor the chance to bare his soul.
But no matter, Paul simply clears the palette for the knock-down, drag-out soul-baring fight between Stephen and Michael that follows this stud puppy's exit. Sean P. O'Bannon's Michael moves to center stage, and we get his side of the break-up. Michael actually loathes opera, and even more he loathes Stephen's obsessive retreat into the fantasy world opera represents, and the subsequent gulf between them.
What follows is transfixing. The actor Sean P. O'Bannon moves Mike from bland to grand. Where at first we were unsympathetic to him, we come around to seeing his side. Stephen is not only nit-picky, he also always needs to be right. He's more passionate about opera than he is about his lover. In the boudoir, all the flames and intimacy have died out, doused by Stephen's own preoccupations with music and literature. Mike spells it out in a towering and fully convincing performance.
There are two types of readers here - those who have seen The Lisbon Traviata, and those who have not. For those who have, I will tell you the fight scenes, climax and ending are brilliantly executed, spine-tingling and convincing. The audience is caught in the grip of the moment, and seriously gasps in surprise and concern for our characters as they struggle. For those who haven't seen this play, it would be like breaking an oath to tell you the ending. That, my friend, would spoil the mystique of The Lisbon Traviata.
Congratulations to Theatre22, Artistic Director, Corey McDaniel, Director/Designer Gerald B. Browning, the cast and production crew. They have something to be proud of for their First Annual 'Summer Pride Series.'
The Lisbon Traviata runs Thursdays through Saturdays (with industry night performance Monday, June 23) at 8 p.m. and two matinees Saturdays June 21 & June 28 at 2:30 p.m., at Richard Hugo House (1634 11th Ave.). Tickets $22 general; $14 student/senior/military; $10 Theater Puget Sound members; with $10 minimum pay-what-you-can tickets on Thursdays and Monday, June 23. www.theatre22.org or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/575647.
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