Raleigh Ensemble Players' artistic director C. Glen Matthews is famous for pushing the edges of the creative envelope with imaginative touches that heighten the comic and dramatic impact of plays in performance. But his latest brainstorm — performing the all-male drama Lilies by candlelight — is not one of Matthews' brighter ideas. Written in 1987 by prize-winning openly gay French Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard and translated into English in 1990 by award-winning translator Linda Gaboriau, this dark and disturbing R-rated drama about forbidden love, jealousy, murder, false imprisonment, and revenge would be somewhat difficult to follow on a brightly lit stage.
Performing Lilies, Or The Revival of a Romantic Drama (Les Feluettes) by candlelight, with so many of the cast members' facial expressions partly or wholly lost in the shadows, creates some unnecessary confusion about who is doing what to whom. It is hard enough for native English speakers such as yours truly to puzzle out the characters' elaborate French names, not to mention their titles.
Lilies is set in a Canadian frontier town in 1912 and 1952. The play, which is performed without intermission, starts out in 1952 when an embittered falsely imprisoned ex-convict, Simon Doucet (David Britt), kidnaps his childhood friend, His Excellency Bishop Jean Bilodeau (Gregor McElvogue), and forces him to watch a harrowing reenactment of an unfortunate episode from their youth. Back in 1912, when the young Doucet (Sean A. Brosnahan), a teenaged arsonist, fell in love with the youthful Count Vallier de Tilly (Joseph Brack), who was nicknamed Lily White, their schoolmate Bilodeau (Brandon Roberts) became increasingly — some might say insanely — jealous of the growing closeness between Simon and Vallier.
A series of calamities that occurred way back in 1912 ended with Simon Doucet in jail for decades for crimes he did not commit and Jean Bilodeau on the road to the priesthood. To say more would spoil the show.
David Britt gives a great, gutsy performance as revenge-minded Simon Doucet; and Sean Brosnahan is terrific as Doucet's youthful self. Joseph Brack is likewise excellent as Vallier, performing one love scene, set in a bathtub, entirely in the nude.
Brett Wilson is very good as poor, pitiful Countess Marie-Laure de Tilly, abandoned by her husband (who has gone back to France) and left to fend for herself and her beloved son. Candlelight and shadows makes it tough to grade the performance of Gregor McElvogue as Bishop Jean Bilodeau; but Thomas Mauney, Tim Overcash, and Jason Roberts all have their moments as various friends and family of the star-crossed couple.
Lilies, which would be controversial if it were performed in bright daylight, loses some of its power to shock when performed in candlelight. Director Glen Matthews and assistant director Heather Willcox could do much to elucidate the action by adding a bushel of candles or by giving the found space in which Doucet's story is reenacted a skylight or a crack in the roof to let in more light.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Lilies 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 email@example.com. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/current2003.htm.