Michel Marc Bouchard’s classic play Lilies (Les Feluettes) was made into one of the most beautiful Canadian films in the 90s, and more recently an opera (2016, Opéra de Montréal) that has been described as containing an “uncommon dramatic intensity.” This latest staged adaptation Lilies; Or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama, unfortunately, misses that mark – it’s as unsure of itself as its title implies.
Staged as the final show in Buddies in Bad Times’ 40th Anniversary season and revisited by a stellar cast, it endeavours to highlight the most marginal in society and make a commentary on how disproportionately detained the Indigenous and Black populations are in Canada’s prison system. The facts are very true as any textbook on the subject will reveal, but I found myself asking what it was in this particular narrative that inspired the creative team, other than it being set in a prison. The wrongful imprisonment of an aging Simon (Walter Borden) is avenged by a group of prisoners who help him put on a re-enactment to jog the memory of Bishop Jean Bilodeau (Alexander Chapman), a former schoolmate, who has been summoned in for confession time. But the hope is to trigger some sort of confession from Bilodeau himself about what happened back in 1912, by forcing him to view his former schoolmates in action, in this play-within-a-play.
We learn that back in their school days, a young Simon (Tsholo Khalema) and Vallier (Waawaate Fobister) fell for each other while rehearsing a play about Saint Sabastian. This made a repressed Bilodeau extremely jealous. The former two make an outstanding duo generating the type of repressed chemistry one might expect between young boys coming of age in the early 20th century. You wonder at each moment just whether they will pounce or kill each other. Their kisses, as such, are explosive. Vallier’s mother, the Countess de Tilly (Troy Emery Twigg), is dazzling from start to finish as the voice of support and acceptance. In fact, the Countess is, perhaps, the most fully developed character in this concept of Lilies, clearly embracing a two-spirit mindset rather than a Eurocentric view of gender and sexuality. One wonders how she has managed to escape her time and place in society. Twigg manages to skillfully play contradicting emotions, those of compassion and abandonment – still believing her husband will return from Paris after years of waiting. I should also mention, Twigg leads the beautiful drumming circle that opens the play, delivering goose bumps while demonstrating a most refreshing solidarity amongst inmates.
I enjoy the costumes (Joanna Yu): cream with various dustings of beige, gold and amber. Even throughout the prisoner’s transformations, we are always reminded of their current reality, for instance, with trousers gently revealed underneath dresses. It makes the text accessible, eliminating the air of pretension. Further, the set (Jay Havens) also grabs my attention. With its urban framework, Buddies has always fared well as a prison backdrop. Peeled back to its core, the church pews are a smart contrasting touch. It’s a shame, though, that some pockets of the set are hardly used, and the stage action is vague. Bilodeau, for instance, sits and watches for most of the show with only the occasional awkward outburst in protest of what he sees.
There is a lot of subtext in Bouchard’s complex moving script which blurs the line between life and art, flipping from the prison system of the 50s to earlier twentieth century Quebec. The camera lens does a better job at penetrating these worlds and exposing the characters. On stage, ironically, while some of the characters shine, the story moves at such a slow pace, it’s rather hard to become enthralled, and the climactic finale loses its potential.