Review: The Lisbon Traviata (Eclipse Theatre)

| November 10, 2015

Joe McCauley and JP Pierson star in Eclipse Theatre's "The Lisbon Traviata" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steve Scott. (photo credit: Scott Dray)         
      
The Lisbon Traviata 

Written by Terrence McNally
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
thru Dec 13 | tix: $30  |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets   
    


    
  

Wonderful production of dated script

  

Luke Daigle, Joel Reitsma and Joe McCauley in Eclipse Theatre's "The Lisbon Traviata" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steve Scott. (photo credit: Scott Dray)

    
Eclipse Theatre Company presents
    
The Lisbon Traviata

Review by Lauren Whalen 

In many ways, The Lisbon Traviata was ahead of its time. Terrence McNally’s dark comedy premiered off-Broadway in 1989, and explored the concept of open relationships. Additionally, while the AIDS crisis is very present in the minds of the play’s four characters (all gay men), it’s seamlessly integrated into the text – a mention of a sick friend, questions about testing and protection – without overwhelming the main plot. Eclipse Theatre Company’s production, and the close of its all-McNally season, is beautifully done, as attuned to detail and performance as the finest big-budget Lyric Opera presentations. The talented cast and production team almost compensate for McNally’s script which, while immensely entertaining, is ultimately a product of its time.

JP Pierson and Joe McCauley in Eclipse Theatre's "The Lisbon Traviata" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steve Scott. (photo credit: Scott Dray)Mendy (JP Pierson) and Stephen (Joe McCauley) have their differences: Mendy’s a flamboyant queen and Stephen, a depressed literary editor. However, both share a passion for opera, especially the grande dame of divas herself, Maria Callas. As the best friends bond over records, Stephen reveals that he and his longtime partner Mike (Joel Reitsma) are on the rocks, and are experimenting with nonmonogamy. Stephen’s getting stood up by busboys, while Mike may be falling for his current lover, social work graduate student Paul (Luke Daigle). The next morning, Stephen confronts Mike and Paul, and the results mirror that of Mendy and Stephen’s beloved tragic operas.

The play’s title derives from a 1958 production of La Traviata with Callas in the leading role. A cast member made an unauthorized live performance recording, and only 2,000 copies exist. These records quickly became collectors’ items among the diva’s fans. The Lisbon Traviata’s first act is set entirely in Mendy’s apartment, where Stephen is having dinner. When Stephen reveals that he has obtained a copy of the coveted album, Mendy becomes obsessed with borrowing it.

It’s been said that Mendy, divorced dad turned turban-sporting queen, is one of McNally’s most memorable characters. Indeed, the first act – an extended conversation between Mendy and Stephen – is immensely entertaining and compelling. However, when it comes down to it, Mendy is completely and totally unnecessary to The Lisbon Traviata. Over the course of the first act, an extended conversation between Stephen and Mendy, McNally reveals that the play is, in fact, about Stephen and Mike’s relationship. Mike appears very briefly in the first act, and Mendy in the second, which is set in Stephen and Mike’s apartment the morning after Mike and Paul’s six-month anniversary. I doubt I was the only one who initially though the play was about Mendy – and who ended up wishing that was true. It’s difficult to believe that if The Lisbon Traviata were written today, as opposed to thirty years ago, the playwright would spend over an hour with a character that’s ultimately superfluous to the story.

Joe McCauley and Joel Reitsma in Eclipse Theatre's "The Lisbon Traviata" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steve Scott. (photo credit: Scott Dray)JP Pierson and Joe McCauley in Eclipse Theatre's "The Lisbon Traviata" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steve Scott. (photo credit: Scott Dray)

Though the script is quite dated, Eclipse’s production is largely stunning. Director and ensemble member Steve Scott keeps the pacing and staging tight, and Kevin Hagan’s scenic design is genius. Mendy’s cluttered and colorful apartment stands in sharp contrast to Stephen and Mike’s more minimalist 1980’s flat. The set is poised at an angle on the platform stage, so the audience never forgets we are watching a story unfold. Aaron Stephenson’s music choices are inspired, and three of the four cast members are excellent. While Daigle seems a bit out of place and lost among the three stronger actors, Reitsma’s Mike is excellent: a man that seems callous at first but has his own story of his relationship with Stephen. McCauley goes from depressed to desperate in a way that’s very organic, and Pierson (also Eclipse’s casting director) is a pitch-perfect Mendy, infinitely campy but also touchingly human.

At two and a half hours, The Lisbon Traviata tends to drag, though that’s the fault of the source material and not the director. Despite the faulty text, Eclipse Theatre’s production is epic, funny and dark, in the style of the best operas. Kudos to director Scott for bringing an informed and passionate perspective to the work of a Tony-award winning playwright.

Note:  Terrence McNally, author of The Lisbon Traviata, will visit Chicago this weekend. Eclipse Theatre Company Artistic Director will moderate a post-show discussion with McNally immediately following the Friday, Nov 13 performance. On Saturday, November 14, McNally will sign his new play anthology and participate in a discussion with Northlight Theatre Artistic Director B.J. Jones at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston. For more info, visit eclipsetheatre.com.

  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

The Lisbon Traviata continues through December 13th at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $30 (students/seniors: $20), and are available by phone (773-935-6875) or online at OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at EclipseTheatre.com(Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)

Joel Reitsma, JP Pierson and Joe McCauley in Eclipse Theatre's "The Lisbon Traviata" by Terrence McNally, directed by Steve Scott. (photo credit: Scott Dray)

Photos by Scott Dray

    

artists

cast

JP Pierson (Mendy), Joe McCauley (Stephen), Joel Reitsma (Mike), Luke Daigle (Paul), Matt Thinnes (Mike understudy)

behind the scenes

Steve Scott (director), Kevin Scott and Nathaniel Swift (producers), Kathleen Dickinson (production manager), Daniel Sappington (assistant director), Ashley Bowman (stage manager), Colleen Layton (assistant stage manager), Kevin Hagan (scenic design), Matthew Carney (lighting design), Aaron Stephenson (sound design), Rachel Lambert (costume design), Vanessa Thomas (properties design), Katie Vandehey (dramaturgy), Stephen Dale (fight choreographer), JP Pierson (casting director), Scott Dray (photos)

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Category: 2015 Reviews, Athenauem, Eclipse Theatre Company, Lauren Whalen, Terrence McNally

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