4 men

Cast of The Lisbon Traviata as produced by C’est La Guerre

WILMINGTON, NC – How does one plan a comeback?

The Lisbon Traviata is no ordinary play, it represents the return of the theatre group C’est La Guerre (recently covered by Port City Daily), which has been on hiatus since the pandemic. Rather than go with a well-known crowd pleaser, the company decided to announce their return and celebrate Pride month with a staging of Terrence McNally‘s look at messy relationships in the New York gay scene in the late ’80s. As if this tall order weren’t enough, the production was hit with the unexpected loss of a family member of the design team, costing a weekend of performances as a result.

The final production is rough around the edges by the admission of the company themselves, and yet, I would firmly describe it as nothing short of a triumph. And I do not mean triumph in the generic sense; I mean specifically that C’est La Guerre overcame lofty goals, high expectations, and surprising difficulties to bring their audience something truly special. This is a staging of The Lisbon Traviata driven by the infectious passion and commitment by everyone involved.

The first truly striking element about this production – and one that hints at the great things to come – is the set. For both acts, the set construction, production design, and lighting create a lived-in world, turning the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre at Thalian Hall first into the apartment of the character Mendy in Act I and then the apartment shared by Stephen and Michael in Act II. This may seem like a small thing, but for a play that functions so much like a slice of life in the first act (before the drama gets going in the second), it is vitally important for the audience to feel like these are real apartments in which real people live.

Paul, played by Thomas McPherson, moves cautiously, unsure of himself, as if keeping an eye on the exits at any given time. Mendy, played by James Bowling (also the director), fusses about the space, adjusting and rearranging objects, pacing nervously, “camping” for emphasis when called for. Mike, played by George Schwenzer, moves little, doing a lot more standing or sitting in a more rooted way. And finally Steven, played by George Domby (also the executive producer), moves about the space with a theatrical restlessness, especially in the second act when emotions are high and characters discuss painful truths about their lives.

Like McNally’s other work, The Lisbon Traviata is an actor’s play, situationally driven, with memorable dialogue and plenty of opportunities for actors to bounce off each other. You spend a great amount of time getting to know these characters, watching how they interact with each other over the course of twelve hours of their lives.

There’s a very difficult tonal transition between the two acts that the actors pulled off with ease: The first act made the audience feel like a fly on the wall, observing Steven and Mendy struggling to find a record to play. The second act sees Steven and Michael come to terms with their relationship as their ugly sides are brought out. Steven, then, is the character who the audience spends the most time with, and while Domby had some difficulties due to unexpected changes in schedule, his performance rose to the occasion. He hit the dramatic beats effectively and left room for the other actors in scenes where he was struggling more.

Schwenzer and Bowling gave the standout performances of the night; both men lived in their roles and captured audience attention whenever they were on stage.

McPhearson is a newcomer to keep an eye on. His more understated performance style was coupled with a fearlessness that makes him someone with the potential to lead a production of his own somewhere down the line. He shone as a supporting player, leaving the audience wanting just a little bit more of him.

Bowling’s direction also deserves acknowledgment because the actors took risks that only a good director can make them feel comfortable enough to take.

As a comeback vehicle, The Lisbon Traviata achieved exactly what it set out to do: return in glorious fashion and celebrate Pride. The production got me excited to see what C’est La Guerre will do next. So compelling were the performances, so captivating was the scenario, and so well realized was the world of the play that the two hours flew by. It’s a shame that this is playing only for one weekend as I am left wanting more, in the best possible way.

C’est La Guerre’s The Lisbon Traviata continues through Sunday, June 16.