Lilies, or The Revival of a Romantic Drama (Les Feluettes), written in 1987 by prize-winning openly gay French Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and translated into English in 1990 by Linda Gaboriau, is a harrowing R-rated all-male drama about forbidden love, betrayal, and revenge. One scene includes full frontal nudity. In other words, it is exactly the type of sensational script that inspires Raleigh Ensemble Players to do its best work.
Lilies assistant director Heather Willcox says, "Lilies begins in 1952 when His Excellency Bishop Jean Bilodeau (Gregor McElvogue) accepts an invitation to meet ex-prisoner Simon Doucet (David Britt) in an abandoned performance space. The bishop is under the impression that he is meeting Simon to discuss possible methods of rehabilitation; however, Simon has other plans. Within minutes, the bishop is held captive and Simon introduces him to his partners in crime — eight ex-cons who assist Simon in recreating a series of events that took place in 1912 when Simon and Bilodeau were in school [together].
"It seems," Willcox continues, "that young Simon (Sean A. Brosnahan) was the object of a young Count's affections. The ex-prisoners breathe life into the troubled love story of the Count (Joseph Brack) and Simon, as well as the attempts by young Bilodeau (Brandon Roberts) to come between them.
She adds, "Thomas Mauney, Tim Overcash, Jason Roberts, and Brett Wilson round out the members of Simon's troupe, playing a menagerie of characters within the reenactment."
"My first introduction to the material occurred several years ago (1997, I think... just after my arrival to Raleigh)," remembers REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews, "when a friend took me to see the John Greyson's film version of Bouchard's play. I was struck by the beauty and intensity of the work... the heightened language and theatricality of the story juxtaposed with the realities of everyday human emotions — love, hate, jealousy, pride, fear. Some time later, I ran across the script in a catalogue and ordered it."
Matthews adds, "I find myself fascinated with the people who inhabit the play, both the characters who exist within the reenactment of Simon and Bilodeau's past and the prisoners themselves. We've spent a great deal of time exploring the relationships of the prisoners... how they met each other, why they are involved in the telling of this story, how they feel about Simon, how they've come to this place, why each of them were in prison... the questions are never ending and a large part of our process has revolved around unearthing answers to such questions.
"Additionally," Matthews says, "I had the opportunity to work on a couple of Jean Genet's plays (The Maids and The Balcony) in graduate school; and I have always been intrigued by his exploration of the audience's awareness of actors playing characters, that which is true and that which is false... specifically in regard to males playing female roles with no attempt to disguise the fact that the actors are indeed males. Couple this element with beautiful imagery, powerful language, and a truly devastating love story and, in my opinion, you've got the makings of something into which directors, designers, and actors can really sink their teeth."
He adds, "Ultimately, for me it's about our inability as humans to let go of the past. It is so very difficult for us to forgive and forget, though each of us knows that we should. How many of us today are a sliver of the person we used to be because of the baggage we're dragging around with us? Can I truly escape that baggage and retain my soul, my essence... and if we can't, what happens to us? What do I become?"
Staging Lilies presents considerable creative challenges to director Glen Matthews, production designer Miyuki Su, and assistant director and sound designer Heather Willcox.
"Whew!" Matthews exclaims, "Where to begin ... the play proper exists in 1952; however, the play-within-the-play occurs in 1912. So, how would a group of ex-prisoners (and some escapees) in 1952 approach the reenactment?
"There's the fact that the script requires men to play all of the female roles. Due to the nature of the story, there is a large amount of intimacy and physicality between the characters; the script calls for nudity as well. Then, there's the need for a major fire to take place on stage ... two characters must be intimate in a bath tub ... yep, the challenges abound," Matthews says with a smile.
"Our biggest challenge?" he muses. "Creating an environment in which to tell the story — one that communicates and supports all of the above and more, one that engages the audience and propels the characters and the plot. But we also had to create an safe, comfortable, and nurturing environment for our actors, too, so that they would feel free to embrace the above challenges and shed the inhibitions and fears that sometimes prevent us from being able to risk all. As a result, this process has been one of the most exciting and most frightening with which I have ever been involved. It's been wonderful!"
Matthews says, "Before we talk about the design of the production, it is important to note how we got to where we are in telling the story. Included in the script to Lilies is the following note by Michel Marc Bouchard:
"'I lived in Roberval in 1912... three years ago. I walked through the smoke of the sawmill in the north of the city... where, years before, people had lingered on the main terrace of the Hotel Roberval. I stood there and contemplated the same landscape that they had admired in those days.... My task was to paint onto this landscape a naïve love story which never could have existed outside such silence and isolation.
"'That is when I met Vallier and Simon.... I mistook them for Angelique, Marquise des Agnes, and Geoffrey. From a sentimental television series that was being re-re-broadcast on the regional network.
"'I met the Countess.... I mistook her for my own inability to adapt to reality. I saw Lydie-Anne hovering over the water.... I mistook her balloon for the perfect red sphere the summer sunsets cast upon the lake, and then disappear like an illusion.
"'A crow flew by, and I mistook it for Bilodeau...
"'But then I still mistake nobility and betrayal, courage and cowardice.
"'Of all these hallucinations, only the timeless witnesses remained — water, earth, fire, and air. They became the raw materials of my story.'"
Matthews claims, "It is that idea of the elements being the pure essence of this story that led to our unique production approach."
Heather Willcox says, "The play is set in an arena format. Covering the primary playing space is hardwood mulch. Suspended above the space are large tree limbs that jut into the space at varying angles and levels. Hanging from these limbs are glass jars that contain candles."
She adds, "The show is lit entirely by candlelight. There are glass jars hanging throughout the space that contain candles, as well as a large candle chandelier that is hung in the center of the space. Candles are also spread throughout the space on the ground (contained in glass jars, candlesticks, and votives).
"Since these costumes were put together by prisoners with limited resources," Willcox says, "they have a more simplistic feel to them, but still remain true to the period. The palette consists primarily of soft earth tones. All the actors are barefoot.
"REP's production of Lilies, or The Revival of a Romantic Drama is intended for mature audiences," cautions Heather Willcox. "No one under 17 will be admitted without parent or guardian."
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Lilies Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 13-15, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 19-22 and 26-28, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 23, at 3 p.m. in Gallery II of Artspace, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. (There will be an audio-described and sign-language-interpreted performance on Feb. 21.) $15 ($10 students with ID and $12 seniors over 60, military and groups of 10 or more). Group rates are available. 919/832-9607 or firstname.lastname@example.org. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/current2003.htm.