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Theatre & Performance Lilies revival is thrillingly audacious, but lacks the fiery romance at the heart of Bouchard’s play

  • Title: Lilies; or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama
  • Written by: Michel Marc Bouchard
  • Translated by: Linda Gaboriau
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Cole Alvis
  • Actors: Walter Borden, Alexander Chapman, Waawaate Fobister, Ryan G. Hinds, Tsholo Khalema, Troy Emery Twigg
  • Companies: lemonTree creations, Buddies in Bad Times, Why Not Theatre
  • Venue: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, May 26

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Lilies; Or, the Revival of a Romantic Drama (Theatre). Indrit Kasapi, Mark Cassius, Joseph Zita, Tsholo Khalema, Ryan G. Hinds, Troy Emery Twigg, Walter Borden, and Alexander Chapman. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh / Buddies in Bad Times.

Jeremy Mimnagh/Handout

Ah, my dear Countess de Tilly! What a pleasure to renew our acquaintance! I believe I last saw you, embodied by Brent Carver, in that splendid film of Lilies, Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s queer classic. You know, the John Greyson one that grabbed the 1996 Genie Award for best picture.

Now here you are again all these years later, on the stage of Buddies in Bad Times. And who would believe it, you’re being brought to life by Blackfoot actor-dancer Troy Emery Twigg – and in such a genteel, charming way that you’d swear he was in a Paris salon rather than a Quebec prison.

If you’re not familiar with Lilies – receiving a bold but uneven, Indigenous-themed revival to close out Buddies’ 40th-anniversary season – the sweet, slightly mad French countess is the plum role in Bouchard’s haunting “romantic drama.” She is also always portrayed by a man, as are the other women in the story.

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For Lilies is a delicious slice of meta-theatre, in which all the characters, from aristocrats to schoolboys, are being played by a gang of hardened convicts. And not only that – the schoolboys in question are also putting on a play, about that Christian martyr and homoerotic icon, St. Sebastian.

We’d better explain. The year is 1952, the place the aforesaid Quebec prison. A Catholic bishop, Jean Bilodeau (Alexander Chapman), has been lured there on a false pretext, in order to be confronted by Simon Doucet (Walter Borden), an alleged murderer he helped to put behind bars 40 years ago. Now Simon is having his revenge. He and his fellow inmates have created a drama, based on Simon and Bilodeau’s shared past, and they force the bishop to watch it.

In that past, it’s 1912 and the two are both students at a Catholic boys’ school in Roberval, on the shores of Lac St.-Jean. Young Bilodeau (Indrit Kasapi) has a secret crush on Simon (Tsholo Khalema), but Simon is in love with another student, the Count Vallier de Tilly (Waawaate Fobister), a French aristocrat living in exile in Roberval with his mother. Bilodeau’s jealousy is exposed when the boys are rehearsing a scene from the latest school play, Gabriele d’Annunzio’s The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian – a daring, not to say scandalous choice by the school’s closeted drama teacher, Father St.-Michel (Mark Cassius), in which Simon has been cast as the half-naked, arrow-riddled martyr.

Lilies; Or, the Revival of a Romantic Drama (Theatre). Alexander Chapman and Walter Borden at centre. L-R Waawaate Fobister, Tsholo Khalema, Ryan G. Hinds, Indrit Kasapi, Mark Cassius, Troy Emery Twigg. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh /Buddies in Bad Times.

Jeremy Mimnagh

That jealousy will eventually lead to tragic consequences. Along the way, Bouchard paints a vivid picture of small-town Quebec in the early 20th century, a rural backwater of peasants and priests and displaced Parisians, rife with homophobia, sexual repression, child abuse and colonial attitudes. In the shadows of the story lurk the local First Nations people, who are mentioned a few times in passing.

In director Cole Alvis’s new reimagining, however, they effectively step out of the shadows. By using predominantly Indigenous and black actors, Alvis brings a new layer of irony to Bouchard’s play. Now we are not only watching the citizens of Roberval as interpreted by rough convicts, but as seen through the eyes of its marginalized people.

Alvis’s production – a collaboration between the director’s lemonTree creations, Buddies and Why Not Theatre – goes further, adding scene transitions with drumming and chanting. Linda Gaboriau’s translation of Bouchard’s French text has been tweaked, with some lines spoken in Blackfoot by Twigg and in the Ojibwe language, Anishinaabemowin, by Fobister. Jay Havens’s bleak prison-chapel set, with its pews and stone floor, gives way to twigs and hanging cloth suggesting a teepee. The oppressive weight of the Catholic Church looms large over Bouchard’s play, with talk of Sodom and Gomorrah and Babylon, and in this new context we can’t help also thinking about the iron grip of its residential schools.

This is a significant reappraisal of a famous work from the Canadian canon, in line with Nina Lee Aquino’s similar take on The Drawer Boy at Theatre Passe Muraille last season. But at the same time, it’s missing the fiery romance at the heart of Bouchard’s play.

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That isn’t the fault of Khalema, who gives a passionate performance as young Simon. But he’s playing alongside a one-note Fobister, whose Count de Tilly (referred to derisively by Bilodeau as “Lilywhite”) comes off more awkward than fey.

Thankfully, we have Twigg as his mother, the cheerfully delusional countess who, half the time, believes she’s back in France, by the Mediterranean. Wearing a tattered sun hat and a refined expression, Twigg captures beautifully both her comic obliviousness and her tender, tolerant heart. By play’s end, she’s become a tragic figure worthy of Tennessee Williams.

Ryan G. Hinds is a brassy contrast in the other major female role, as Lydie-Anne, the devious young Frenchwoman who arrives in Roberval via hot-air balloon and forcefully woos Simon away from his true love. In a nice touch, Chapman, who played Lydie-Anne in Greyson’s film, now appears as the suave bishop. He faces the nearly inarticulate rage of Borden’s bitter elder Simon – and Borden is no less scary when Simon plays his own brutal, gin-swilling father, who whips his son for kissing a boy. Kasapi as young Bilodeau, meanwhile, is suitably pathetic in his unrequited love.

This revival of Lilies may be lacking in erotic heat, but it does shed new light on a classic play that we thought we knew. It is, as the Countess de Tilly herself might put it, thrillingly audacious.

Lilies continues to May 26. (buddiesinbadtimes.com)

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