Dallas- As the audience enters the theater at the Bath House Cultural Center, there is a middle-aged man—a priest in Roman collar—pacing. He nervously taps the book he is carrying on his leg. He stares into the distance, expecting something or someone. He is uncertain, ill at ease. Unsettled.
The person chanced upon is Bishop Jean Bilodeau. His discomfort within his own skin is palpable; it sets the mood for the play that doesn’t begin for several more minutes. When the lights go down, the audience can finally hide from his stern, glaring gaze.
The plot of Lilies, which is produced not by an organization but by the team of Gordon Kelly and Robin Benson, is presented as a play within a play and revolves around two murders. All of the actors except one portray multiple characters. The main action takes place in 1952 at a men’s prison, where Simon Doucet has enlisted his fellow prisoners to perform a play, set 40 years earlier in 1912, for the bishop. It also just so happens that the boys in 1912 are rehearsing a play about the martyrdom of Sebastian.
Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s hard-hitting drama premiered in 1987. It does contain gay themes, and, by necessity, crossdressing (since male prisoners portray female characters), but the focus of the play is the church’s complicity in destroying gay lives and gay love. It is a bold choice for Pride Month by director Ned Record.
Linda Gaboriau’s English translation came out in 1991. Since then, the play has been adapted into a film, directed by John Greyson, as well as an opera, with music by Kevin March and libretto by Bouchard.
The play-within-a-play-within-a-play of Saint Sebastian lends a crucial subtext (or, more precisely, sub-subtext). As the martyr is considered to offer protection against the plague, one can’t help but think of the AIDS pandemic under whose shadow Bouchard wrote the script. Also, the iconography of Sebastian pierced with arrows has often served as a queer touchstone.
Allusions to him abound throughout the queer canon, from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask to more contemporary works such as Derek Jarman’s 1976 Latin-language film Sebastiane and the video to R.E.M.’s 1991 hit “Losing My Religion.” For both Catholics and queers, Sebastian represents the convergence of stoic heroism in the face of overwhelming torment as well as the ideals of youth and beauty cut down in their prime.
All this to say, Lilies is not light theater fare.
Seth Johnston is a strong Bishop Bilodeau. He fully inhabits the gruff bishop who keeps his secrets buried deep. At first, he refuses to play his part in the prisoners’ production—that of his younger self—but then increasingly interjects revisions and details only he can provide of the past events. Johnston’s husky voice adds an expressive pathos to an already eloquent script. Hearing him confess to a heretofore unacknowledged love and betrayal is simultaneously unnerving and heartbreaking.
Tim Bubel as Simon, a prisoner wrongfully convicted of a crime forty years prior, is less convincing. He is stronger when he performs the part of his father in the past. Though there is one scene as Simon that stands out: when he physically forces Bilodeau to perform. Such stage movement can easily come across as hokey, but Bubel brings a real urgency and plausibility to how he, a desperate prisoner, manhandles the bishop.
Much of the action of the play centers on the events of 1912 and the relationship between Simon and Count Vallier, as witnessed by a young, sanctimonious, and jealous Bilodeau. The young Simon is played well by Ian Mead Moore. Alredo Tamayo manages to evoke a mix of naiveté and world-weariness in his portrayal of the count.
As innocents experiencing first love, they are reasonably plausible. Credit for the convincing affection between the two boys goes to intimacy choreographer Ashley H. White. As ostensibly older and more hardened prisoners performing younger boys in love, it is more difficult to judge their performances. On opening night, both actors stumbled over crucial lines.
Shawn Gann fills the demanding double role of a prisoner playing the mad Countess de Tilly. Considering that the countess imagines herself living in a vast Mediterranean villa with a full staff of servants when in reality she has been suffering from poverty and delusions ever since her husband abandoned her, it is truly sorrowful to learn she is the only one in town who seems aware of, and who approves of, her son Vallier’s forbidden love. Gann is outstanding. He doesn’t play the fallen matriarch for laughs but rather humanizes her, making her sympathetic in her brokenness.
Sheridan Monroe also gives a standout performance as the prisoner-cum-Lydie-Anne de Rozier, a French sophisticate who arrives in 1912 Quebec by aerostat, or hot air balloon. There are plenty of opportunities to turn this role into a campy caricature, especially during her declamation on the usefulness of lies, but Monroe, under Record’s skillful direction, resists.
Lilies’ design team does an impressive job at quasi-low tech. “Quasi” because, by necessity, the prisoners’ production is limited in costumes and props to the items that would have been available in a 1950s prison.
Ellen Doyle Mizener’s scenic design, though somewhat austere—the hint of prison walls, a suggestion of a bathtub made up of chairs and sheets, a bare mop handle sticking up from a tin bucket as the post where Sebastian is to be martyred, is probably the most elaborate set design Bath House audiences have seen in years. Costume and prop designer Hillari Paulk creatively transforms mop heads into elegant coiffures, shredded newspapers into an haute couture hat, and tableware into fine jewelry befitting a countess.
Jen Kules’ lighting design, particularly when it implies the fires about town set by an arsonist, is nicely understated: just a glimpse of the chaos and destruction ever raging on the periphery.
As you celebrate Pride, make time to also celebrate dramatic queer theater. The seldom-produced Lilies continues through Saturday.