Wednesday, July 24, 2024

After hiatus, C’est La Guerre returns with Terrence McNally play for one weekend only

Produced by C’est La Guerre, The Lisbon Traviata, is showing at Thalian Hall for one weekend. (Courtesy Thalian Hall)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — For the first time in a decade, a local theater company is making a comeback. 

READ MORE: No Pride month declaration from New Hanover school board amid policy controversy

C’es La Guerre is opening “The Lisbon Traviata,” by Terrence McNally to commemorate Pride month. Showing at the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theater at Thalian Hall, the production will run for one weekend only, Thursday through Sunday.

McNally — often coined the “the bard of American theater” and Tony winner for “Ragtime,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Kiss of a Spider Woman” — is known for his portrayal of the human experience, particularly of gay men.

“We have been trying to promote it as much as possible as a Pride event because, I mean, we couldn’t be more proud of doing a piece like this,” George Domby told Port City Daily earlier this week. 

Domby is C’est La Guerre’s co-founder, who started the production company a decade ago. It has produced “Bukowsical” and “The Lady in Question” to date. In addition to being executive producer, Domby is also playing the lead role of Stephen in “The Lisbon Traviata.” 

Set in lower Manhattan, the play centers on the anguishing relationships of two best friends. Main characters, Stephen and Mendy — the latter performed by James Bowling — are opera buffs, with a keen admiration for the late renowned soprano, Maria Callas. Callas is deemed one of the most influential opera singers of the 20th century. Stephen, an intellectual and depressed literary editor, grapples with jealousy and denial as he witnesses his unofficial partner engage in a romance with a younger man.

Meanwhile, Mendy, Stephen’s older flamboyant friend, hides his unrequited feelings for Stephen.

Together they are trapped in the world of opera, using it to cope with and frame their reality as they navigate themes of rejection, love, and fear, in the context of being gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic. 

“McNally’s humor is so wicked and biting that I think it will appeal to everyone,” Domby said.

He began professionally producing operas in the mid-’90s, yet has been performing since he was a child. In 2015 Domby received a Wilmington Theater Awards nomination for Outstanding Music Direction for his role as music director in “Bukowsical,” also produced by C’est La Guerre. 

“I’ve produced operas for several years,” Domby said. “It sort of gives me kind of an intimacy with at least the opera references that are in the show.” 

The play points out opera stars and industry-specific humor, such as Stephen humorously dubbing Joan Sutherland, the Australian dramatic coloratura soprano, as “the beast down under” in Act I. However, Domby emphasized that familiarity with opera doesn’t detract from the play’s readability or enjoyment.

This rendition of the play remains true to McNally’s original script, which also displays the surrounding climate for gay men in the 1980s as they dealt with fear, stigma, and illness from the AIDS epidemic. The global health crisis killed 100,777 people between 1981 and 1990 as medical professionals and worldwide leaders were grappling with the new virus. 

“I was a young man in ‘80s and ‘90s, and I know what we went through — how scary it was.” Domby said. “I think that sometimes when we’re saying these lines, we have a new frame of reference for that. And that’s COVID.” 

Domby draws a parallel of the emotions of unfamiliarity and the unknown endured in the ‘80s with the widespread fear during the peak of the 2020 pandemic, suggesting it adds a sense of connection and contemporary relevance to McNally’s 1989 play.

“Having just come through a worldwide pandemic, I think everyone can relate to the fear of a mysterious disease waiting just outside the door to kill you and the people you love,” he said.

Domby points out love and loss is also universally relatable. 

“I think people will be touched by some of the dialogue that McNally has written, particularly when it comes to aging and the loss of beauty,” he said. “And I think there’s a lot that people will connect with.” 

James Bowling as Mendy isn’t only in the show, he is also directing. Bowling has nearly a decade of involvement in Wilmington’s theater community. His performance as Willy Loman in Thalian Association Community Theatre’s 2016 production of “Death of a Salesman” earned him a nomination for a Wilmington Theatre Award. 

Bowling stepped into the role of Mendy when a previous cast member had to withdraw due to health reasons. Mendy’s role has been hailed since the play debuted Off-Broadway as one of the most memorable for the quick wit and catty dialogue. Bowling was unavailable for an interview.

While Act I maintains a humorous tone, the atmosphere shifts in Act II as domestic violence rears its head. It showcases the now-deceased playwright’s prowess in writing complicated characters facing both comedic and tragic situations.

Performances of “The Lisbon Traviata” will be held from June 13 to 16, with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday show will be a matinee held at 2 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here

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