Thursday, June 12, 2014

Opera trivia is the subplot for an aria about love and loss in Theatre22's "The Lisbon Traviata"

Daniel Christensen and Eric Mulholland in Lisbon Traviata (photo Robert Falk)

The Lisbon Traviata
by Terrence McNally
directed by Gerald B. Browning
starring Daniel Christensen, Eric Mulholland, Sean P. O'Bannon, Kyle James Traver
(at Richard Hugo House)
through June 28

A relationship hitting the very last skids is dressed in operatic clothing in Theatre22's latest production of The Lisbon Traviata by Terrence McNally. Gay men living in 1985 in New York in the shadow of the growing AIDS crisis try to find love or save love.

The cast of four tackle this sometimes humorous, sometimes way-over-the-top fanboy opera arcanity, sometimes soapy relationship script with credibility. Gerald B. Browning has a clear vision as a director and manages the flow of the action with believability and also creates a terrific visual design with huge Maria Callas wall portraits setting the post-modern scene.

The two actors with the most to do are Daniel Christensen as Stephen and his best friend and fellow opera geek Mendy (Eric Mulholland). Much of Act One is their great friendship, full of their history and that of all their friends, and their incredible attachment to Maria Callas, the great opera diva who died before her time in 1977. Even audience members of this play who heard her perform vouch for her greatness.

Stephen and Mendy spend a lot of time debating which of Callas' performances are best on record as they compare her La Traviata of London with that of a Lisbon performance. But their obsession with Callas is how we learn of Stephen's deteriorating relationship with Mike (Sean P. O'Bannon) and that Mike is seeing a new man, Paul (Kyle James Traver).

Stephen acts like he can handle it all and doesn't mind, but it's clear that he is in denial about the depth of his own loss. Christensen masters this duality beautifully and sets the stage for his own tragedy in Act Two. Mendy is the great friend who never can seem to find love. Mulholland, not as often seen here in Seattle on stage, shows great abilities and a beautiful singing voice, as he effortlessly presents this flamboyant personality.

Some of Act One does bog down in trivialities of Callas and opera performances, but it also serves to make the characters real and relatable. Who hasn't had friends obsessed with something (mountaineering, 10k races, animals) that you just have to let wash over you and ignore?

Act Two takes place in Stephen and Mike's apartment in early morning hours when Stephen returns earlier than he is supposed to and catches Mike and Paul still in bed. It's awkward and tacky and a little funny (with a little nudity) as Stephen struggles to continue the fiction that he doesn't care. But it all falls apart and Mike finally has to make Stephen understand that there is no going back.

The depth of Stephen's despair is so palpable that it becomes operatic. We, like Stephen, can no longer ignore the truth of the failed relationship.

A tiny peeve: While much of the production was well-done, the lighting scheme became so obvious that it was annoying. Tess Malone has lit many productions well and perhaps it was a collaboration with Browning who wanted to dramatize things over much, but there were too many darkenings-of-stage-to-focus-on-one-player. There are two places the dramatic lighting was effective (the red on Maria is a great moment, and the end).

The rest of the technical support, in costuming (K.D. Shill), props (Robin Macartney) — the telephone and record player!, and sound (Joshua Blaisdell) is great.

This is a solid outing of a play where everyone just happens to be gay. Whether you want to see theater with LGBT content or not, everyone can recognize the feelings displayed, so it's a play for everyone.

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