When I was shown to my socially distanced seat, fully masked, at the Theater Center in midtown, it had been exactly 425 days since I had last been in a theater. That’s quite a change from being accustomed to seeing shows, often multiple times a week. On one level, it was a monumental milestone, and on another, distancing aside, it felt familiar, as if the intervening fourteen months had never happened.
Of course, they had, and the Drama Company NYC’s production of “Lilies or the Revival of a Romantic Dream” is being billed as the first new indoor production of 2021. What a great way to return to a physical theater.
Though the play was only written in 1987 by Canadian Michel Marc Bouchard, it has a classic feel. It is a romance, a revenge tragedy, and a gay love story all rolled into one. The English translation by Linda Gaboriau is contemporary and balances brutality and lyricism in a way that is fully engaging.
The plot revolves around the confrontation between Simon Doucet and Bishop Jean Bilodeau in 1952. Simon has just gotten out of jail for a crime he did not commit, and he confronts Bilodeau about his role in a tragedy when he, Bilodeau, and Count Valier De Tilly were at school together in 1912. The young Bilodeau, passionate about morality and the church, resented the romantic relationship between Simon and Valier and felt it would lead to their eternal damnation. Simon, to get away from the small town where they live, convinces himself he is in love with a rich woman visiting the town — and he plans to marry her and escape. Needless to say it doesn’t go well, and Simon ends up in Jail. The story is portrayed by ghosts from the past conjured by the older Simon, and Bilodeau is forced to revisit the tragedy.
The story is told simply and acted out by a cast of 11 men. Though presented on a bare stage using only chairs, the company evokes time and place effortlessly. Under the direction of Andrew Benvenuti, they balance the magical realism of the story with visceral emotional depth. The threat and challenge of being gay in a small town in 1912 and in an environment where religious zealotry abounds provides the dramatic tension that propels the story and the emotions. The surreal storytelling reminds one of Dürrenmatt’s play “The Visit,” particularly with the subtle undercurrent of moral commentary throughout. In “Lilies,” the moral question is whether or not the spirit can be constrained by the dogma of the church. Playwright Bouchard posits that the heart cannot be constrained, but it’s a fair fight as each of the characters wrestles with his demons.
The cast is excellent. As the older Bilodeau, Marc Verzatt sheds the armor of the church over the course of the play to become vulnerable and human. Hartley Parker, as the young Simon, embodies the conflict and internalized shame of his sexuality. Florimond Le Goupil-Maier as Vallier is more free, a destitute aristocrat exiled to Canada from Paris along with his mother. His mother. Countess De Tilly, is the voice of acceptance and freedom (with her libertine Parisian ways), and though she is driven nearly mad by the loss of the world she knew, her love for her son makes her an ardent defender of his relationship with Simon. As played by Bill Morton. the Countess is touching and sympathetic, even given the excess of the role. As Lydie-Anne De Rozier, the woman Simon tries to fall in love with, JP Ross gives a strong and assured performance with surprising flashes of intensity as her plans crumble. Her character sets up a third element of tension in the piece. Beyond the church and sexuality, De Rozier represents the power of money to solve deeper problems. Grant Hale as the young Bilodeau deftly balances the character’s religious intensity with a personal vulnerability that ultimately makes him a tragic figure.
Given that the characters are all types, it’s to the credit of the entire cast that their authentic humanity shines through and creates a powerful emotional experience. One can only imagine what it’s like for them to play to a small house where the audience is spread around the theater and wearing masks. It has to have an impact on the more traditional experience of going to the theater where the audience becomes a cohesive organism, as much a part of the experience as what is happening on the stage.
As restrictions are lifted and we once again can fill houses, we may return to whatever the new normal for theatergoing will be. In the meantime, however, it’s exciting to welcome “Lilies” and immerse oneself in the kind of immediacy and artistry only live theater can provide.
LILIES, OR THE REVIVAL OF A ROMANTIC DREAM | The Theater Center, 210 West 50th Street | Weds. 2 p.m.; Sat. 5 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; Mon. 7 p.m. | $45-$62 at Ticketmaster.com or 212-921-7862 |
Note: Seating follows a socially distanced “pod” plan. Masks required.