Stage Door Review

Lilies

Friday, May 10, 2019

✭✭✭

by Michel Marc Bouchard, translated by Linda Gaboriau, directed by Cole Alvis

lemonTree creations, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre & Why Not Theatre, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

May 9-26, 2019

Mlle de Rozier: “Love is the worst lie one can tell oneself”

I had seen seven plays by Michel Marc Bouchard, but never Lilies (Les feluettes ou La répétition d'un drame romantique) from 1987, the play that made him famous. I had been distinctly unimpressed by Bouchard’s work to the point that I wondered why he continues to be acclaimed and performed. When Buddies in Bad Times Theatre announced a new production of Lilies would close its 40th season, I was glad finally to have the chance to see this Canadian “classic” and to see what it is about this breakthrough play that caused such a stir. While the co-production from lemonTree creations, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Why Not Theatre directed by Cole Alvis is enlightening and gives the play a political bent that it does not otherwise have, Lilies proves to be just as melodramatic, overwrought and improbable as Bouchard’s later plays. 

The action is set in a prison chapel in Quebec in 1952. A group of ex-prisoners under the direction of Simon (Walter Borden) has enticed Bishop Jean Bilodeau (Alexander Chapman) to come to the chapel where they then force him to watch a play that Simon has written. The play is set in 1912 in Roberval, Quebec, at the Collège Saint-Sébastien, where Simon and Jean met each other as students. Simon’s play recounts the events of the past in order to cause Jean to confess his part in the death of the young count Vallier de Tilly (Waawaate Fobister). Simon was accused of the murder of the count because of Jean’s false testimony and has served 35 years in prison for it. Forcing Jean to face what really happened is Simon’s way of exacting revenge on him.

As is often the case in Bouchard, even the play’s premise is improbable. Why should a man who knows his false testimony put Simon behind bars for 35 years even agree to meet him after he has served his sentence? Jean has become a somebody. Simon is less than a nobody. How can Jean not imagine the meeting will be fraught with anger and recrimination?

Why, too, other than Bouchard’s being a playwright, would Simon decide he must tell his side of the story by means of a play? If he must meet with Jean, why not simply have an intense discussion with him? Why involve six of his fellow ex-prisoners and a guard to rehearse for three years (!) for a play that Jean might not even come to see? Not only that, why does Simon’s play include so much information, such as Vallier’s relationship with his mother the Countess de Tilly (Troy Emery Twigg) or his own encounter with Mlle Lydie-Anne de Rozier (Ryan G. Hinds), that have nothing to do with the point of the play? Bouchard seems to be confusing what he wants to do in his own play with the few crucial things Simon needs to do in his.

Bouchard’s notion for having someone watch a play to find a sign of guilt derives, of course, from the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There Hamlet says, "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king”. Here, however, both Simon and Jean know that Jean gave false testimony, so the point of forcing Jean to watch a play is not to discover whether he is or is not guilty as in Hamlet. It is merely an extraordinarily roundabout way of forcing Jean to admit that he lied in court. But given that Jean is of lofty position in the establishment and Simon of none, Jean could admit to lying 35 years ago and little or nothing would happen.

What we learn in the course of the older Simon’s play is that the young Jean (Indrit Kasapi) had been deeply in love with the young Simon (Tsholo Khalema), although Jean could not admit it at first, and Jean and Vallier, whom Jean calls “Lilywhite” in the play, are deeply in love with each other. When Simon’s father (also Walter Borden) becomes incensed at seeing his son romantically kissing Vallier, he beats him severely causing Simon to try to find a woman to marry. That he should choose Mlle de Rozier and she choose him, knowing his orientation, is improbable. Simon, unsurprisingly, flees from the wedding to run off with Vallier not to live together, as we might think, but to die together. Why the two have to die together is unknown except that Bouchard is obsessed with love-death imagery as if Richard Wagner had not brought that theme to its absolute apex in his opera Tristan und Isolde in 1865.

What is so disturbing about Lilies being considered a “gay play” is that, like Bouchard’s treatments of gayness as in Christina, The Girl King (2012) or in The Divine (2015), Bouchard actually prefers situations where gayness is viewed as perverted or sinful as if the danger and forbiddenness of homosexual love is what gives it its interest and piquancy. This is a horribly old school view of gayness more in line with the Decadent movement at the end of the 19th century than with current views. It is a view that fetishizes gayness rather than recognizes it as simply one mode of sexuality on a spectrum of human relationships. This is what gives his depiction of gay love its musty odour and scent of irrelevance. Why this should appeal to audiences in a time that doesn’t need gayness to be forbidden to be interesting is a mystery.

The other bizarre aspect of Lilies is that the drama offers no insight into gayness, much less into human nature in general. We know that many people in prison are wrongfully convicted, but here Bouchard makes the wrongful conviction such a personal matter that the play cannot be said to be interested in imprisonment as rehabilitation or in the faultiness of the prison system. The play is only about personal vengeance.

The play also has little to say about colonialism except in its satire of the Countess de Tilly and Mlle de Rozier, for whom Paris is still the centre of the world even though they are exiled in a small town in northern Quebec. Were Bouchard at all interested in exploring this theme, he could easily relate colonialism to imprisonment, but he does not. Bouchard seems to find the colonial views of the Countess de Tilly and Mlle de Rozier amusing and nothing more.

Given how superficial the play really is, director Cole Alvis deserves credit for finding a way to lend the action greater meaning. Presenting Vallier and his mother as First Nations people, does link the themes of colonialism and imprisonment. It also makes the Countess’s fantasies about returning to her homeland in France not so much amusing as pitiable, as if she has completely internalized the world view of her oppressors. Alvis cannot rid the play of all of its unlikely events, such as Vallier’s “sending his mother to Paris” by murdering her, a scene included like many in Bouchard’s plays not for its exploration of characters but simply for its shock value.

Jay Havens has made the entire back half of Buddies’ main space right to the bare walls stand in for the chapel in the play so that we seem to enter the chapel rather than entering the theatre. Props tables, however, are visible along the side walls so that we are still aware of the play we see as a play. This is all in accordance with the metatheatrical nature of Lilies, which even includes a play-within-a-play-within-a-play.

The main flaw of the production is that it feels under-rehearsed. Some like Walter Borden, Ryan G Hinds, Tsholo Khalema and Troy Emery Twigg are fully engaged and deeply embedded in their characters. Others, most surprisingly Waawaate Fobister, seem to be reciting their lines off an internal teleprompter meaning that there is no chemistry whatsoever between his Vallier and Khalema’s Simon, no matter how ardent Khalema’s Simon is. Alexander Chapman can’t seem to find a middle ground between his very effective expressions of disdain and his shrieking in anger and distress.

Given that Bouchard’s characters function more as puppets who create whatever odd scenes he wants rather than as characters who act out of any consistent psychological realism, Borden, Hinds, Khalema and Twigg go as far as they can to make their characters appear as three-dimensional as they can by endowing their characters an undeniable intensity. It is a great pity that Bouchard leaves the young Jean so undeveloped as a character, because Indrit Kasapi gives every indication he could make something of the figure if he had more to work with.

Nevertheless, Bouchard has created one fully fledged character in the play, Countess de Tilly, and Twigg plays her in a stunning performance. He portrays her “madness” more as a kind of willful self-deception than a mental illness which allows us to see that the Countess is sometimes aware of the game she is playing with herself and others.

Likely contrary to its intentions, what the current revival of Lilies makes all too clear is that the play really should no longer be considered a classic of gay theatre or of Canadian theatre. The revival shows that the play needs to given a sociopolitical re-imagining such as Cole Alvis has provided. Without it the play is just a Jean Genet knock-off (see Le Balcon of 1957) without its trenchant critique of society – a melodramatic gay fantasy predicated on an antique view of homosexuality that never was relevant and still is not. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Indrit Kasapi, Mark Cassius, Joseph Zita, Tsholo Khalema, Ryan G. Hinds, Troy Emery Twigg, Walter Borden and Alexander Chapman; Ryan G. Hinds, Alexander Chapman and Tsholo Khalema, with Indrit Kasapi and Joseph Zita in background; Waawaate Fobister as Vallier and Tsholo Khalema as Young Simon. © 2019 Jeremy Mimnagh.

For tickets, visit buddiesinbadtimes.com.