lemonTree creations, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Why Not Theatre have come together to present Lilies; Or, The Revival Of A Romantic Drama, a sharply relevant reimagining of Michel Marc Bouchard’s classic of queer theatre. This play-within-a-play follows prison inmates as they gather to re-enact the tragic love story of two boys in turn-of-the century Roberval, Quebec.
In 1952, an aging Simon (Walter Borden) has invited Bishop Bilodeau (Alexander Chapman) to witness a dramatic re-creation of their shared past. It is clear from the outset that there is deep, unresolved resentment festering between them. They occasionally interrupt the inmates’ performance as the events of their boyhood wreak havoc on their emotions. My attention was consistently drawn to Chapman’s charged stillness.
We are taken back to 1912 where the young Simon (Tsholo Khalema) and Vallier (Waawaate Fobister) fall in love during rehearsals for a school play about Saint Sebastian. The text makes clever reference to turn-of-the-century social mores as Father Saint-Michel (Mark Cassius), in his choice of overtly homo-erotic plays for the schoolboys, divides the community. There are those who are enchanted by their progressive charms—like Vallier’s delightfully eccentric mother, the Countess de Tilly (Troy Emery Twigg)—and those who are appalled—Simon’s father, Timothée (Borden) and the young, spiteful school-mate Bilodeau (Indrit Kasapi).
The story explores the oppressive conservatism and religious piety that thwart Simon and Vallier’s love and yet also reveals the forces of tolerance, compassion and courage that rise up in hopeful opposition. Particularly moving is Vallier’s mother, seen by the locals as “crazy” due to her flamboyant manner and the illusions she maintains to cope with a devastating betrayal. Her admiration and support of Vallier and his love for Simon is one of the most touching aspects of this work and Twigg imbues her with a deeply resonant warmth.
With any interpretation, the question of whether or not it “works” always weighs heavily on the minds of creators and critics, especially if the source material is particularly beloved. If the concept serves to draw new or hidden ideas out of a text—instead of imposing them upon it—I am mostly appreciative of even the most out there interpretations. But this production’s inclusion of Indigenous motifs and ceremonial elements goes far beyond just working, it feels grounded and deeply resonant.
There are, of course, moments that feel contrived, but that is entirely appropriate considering the explicitly meta-theatrical source material. This a play-within-a-play and, more to the point, the framed play is intentionally presented as a melodrama put on by amateurs—prison inmates who aren’t particularly skilled, but are passionate and very, very angry. Moments of stilted delivery and alienating production elements are essential here, but with the casting of Black and Indigenous performers, the prison setting and the presence of a representative figure of the Catholic Church feels particularly resonant. As the reality of any given scene ebbs and flows, director Cole Alvis’ anti-colonial interpretation hits more crucial marks than it misses.
As the flirtatious and cheeky visiting aristocrat, Lydie-Anne, Ryan G. Hinds has created a hilarious and endearing piece of performance art that, amazingly enough, doesn’t feel out of place despite being so lavishly over-the-top. She has been duped into an engagement to Simon—in his feeble attempt to conform to heteronormative social expectations—and her plight, though amusing, is quite sad. The dialogue even references her role as a theatrical convention—the betrayed woman. In a harrowing outburst at the unfairness of her situation, Hinds delivers a thoroughly compelling final blow that, much to my astonishment, received a laugh during the performance I attended. It is at this pivotal moment we are meant to stop laughing at her.
As Vallier, Fobister’s performance was one that sat strangely with me, but left me with some of the most haunting memories. Even beyond the intentionally strained delivery of his lines in the school play, I found his rhythms odd yet hypnotic. When called upon to honour his mother’s final request, he delivers a wild and harrowing bawl that chilled me to the bone and remains with me still.
Lilies is a beautiful and heartbreaking play. It is richly rendered here with intelligence and loving care.
Runs from May 4 to May 26
At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.)
Visit the website for info and ticket