Review: Lillies; Or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama (LemonTree creations/Buddies in Bad Times/Why Not Theatre)

A reimagined production of the classic, Queer, Canadian play is now on stage in Toronto

Capping off their 40th season, Buddies in Bad Times has reimagined a queer theatre classic that is ambitious and creative, but I don’t think it quite hit the lofty goals it aims for.

Originally staged in 1987, Lilies (Or Les Feluettes in its original French) is an iconic piece of Canadian theatre possibly best known due to its award winning 1996 film adaptation by John Greyson. It’s a powerful piece exploring love, betrayal and revenge and incorporating a play-within-a-play set in a prison chapel. In many ways for my meta-obsessed mind, this was a show I was very excited to see.

Set in 1952, Bishop Jean Bilodeau attends what is supposed to be a final confession of Simon Doucet, a childhood friend who has been incarcerated for decades. However, instead of giving a confession, Doucet stages a play with other inmates; retelling the events leading up to his time in prison while Bilodeau is forced to watch.

Director Cole Alvis’ staging of the play is both faithful and heavily divergent from the original material. Deciding to put a focus on the prison environment and the issues of disproportionate incarceration and colonialism, the vast majority of the cast are visible minorities in what Alvis refers to as Identity Conscious casting. The script is adjusted to highlight this as well, adopting Indigenous language instead of English or French which creates a sense of lived-in creation that makes the play within the play feel more real and personal as opposed to just a meta gimmick.

The set and costuming also feeds into this reality, with costumes looking cheap and poorly made, much like prison inmates with minimal resources and skills would be able to create and props being the same–one of my personal favourites being a cake mold tin instead of an actual dessert. This attention to detail really helps to remind the audience that the whole performance is within a prison and as a result the injustices laid upon the characters becomes doubly impactful; there’s no escaping the reality no matter how fanciful or sentimental the story may get.

This created reality also helps protect what I thought were some of the weaker aspects of the show; some of the performances felt trapped on a single emotional level which hurt the overall flow of the story. It was hard for me to get engaged with a climactic scene when I saw little change in the visible emotional state of a character. The amateurish nature of the setting does cover for this a little, after all these are meant to be prisoners not professional actors, but it does feel a little like leaning on a meta crutch at times.

Another issue I noticed was one staging choice. Throughout the play “Modern” Simon and Bilodeau sit on a pew at the edge of the stage, watching the performance of the other actors and responding to it, sometimes vocally and other times through simple internal acting. This was a surprisingly engaging thing to watch as Bilodeau is confronted by the scenes and I often found myself simply watching Walter Borden and Alexander Chapman while the play continued on another area of the stage. Unfortunately this meant I had to turn my attention away from the main performance, which meant I occasionally missed things happening. It would have been nice to have the two “sections” closer together so that I could focus on one while still being able keep an eye on whatever was happening with the other.

It is very clear that this production wanted to do something more than just put on a staging of Lilies; it had something to say and I think its message was very successfully relayed. Sadly, on the surface level of a simple theatrical performance, I think it fell a little short of the mark. If you’re interested in Canadian, Queer or Intersectional theatre I think Lilies is worth the watch, but without that personal or intellectual engagement it struggles to make the same kind of impact.

Details

  • Lilies; Or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama is playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St.)
  • Performances run until May 26, 2019.
  • Showtimes are at 8 pm Tuesday-Saturday with a 2:30 pm relaxed matinee on Sunday the 19th, no showing on the 20th.
  • Blocks of Pay What You Can Tickets are available Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.
  • Tickets are PWYC – $40.
  • Tickets are available at the door, by phone at 416-975-8555 or online.

Photo of Foreground – Mark Cassius, Ryan G. Hinds, Alexander Chapman, Indrit Kasapi, Mark Cassius, Tsholo Khalema by Jeremy Mimnagh

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