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Review: Ghost Light Theatricals' LILIES Answers Questions We Shouldn't Be Afraid to Ask at Theatre South Playhouse

Review: Ghost Light Theatricals' LILIES Answers Questions We Shouldn't Be Afraid to Ask at Theatre South Playhouse

Imagination is a powerful tool, and the minimalist nature of LILIES necessitates that the audience use it in a way that fill in blanks without distracting from the powerhouse performances.

Theatre South Playhouse sits in an unassuming corner of a shopping plaza in Dr. Phillips, Florida. As a regular patron of the Barnes & Noble just a couple blocks away, I occasionally drive past this plaza without even realizing it. Yet, here I am, on the final night of Ghost Light Theatricals' production of LILIES, an English translation of a French-Canadian play by Michel Marc Bouchard. Director Joseph Walsh has mounted this production fifteen years previously in the UK and Ireland, but he's brought a new production to Central Florida during a year that has been, to say the least, a difficult challenge for both the LGBTQ+ and local theatre communities. Between the passing of the controversial "Don't Say Gay" bill and the surprise resignation of Walsh from the Garden Theatre, enough has already been written in other periodicals about what's occurred. Because those recent events were on the mind throughout the performance of LILIES, it made the show's content and message all the more important for its audience.

LILIES unfolds in a metaphysical way that challenges its audience to question what is true, what is story, and what needs to be re-learned from themselves. And it begins early on, when we see young Jean Bilodeau (Nicholas Querino) shuffling off-stage to the side. He's writing furiously in his notebook; with my seating assignment, I can peer over every so often to see what he's writing. The dim lighting for an off-stage section makes it hard to read the words, but he is dedicated to whatever those scribbles mean.

I asked Querino after the show if he was just writing down nonsense or performing in-character; he confirmed that he writes a note to himself before the play, but once the lights dim and he is off-stage, he begins writing in character to stay in character. This is a type of dedication that helps make the character he plays, as well as others on stage, feel genuine and real to what's unfolding. From another seat in the theatre, I'd have never known what he was doing. But because of my position and angle in this little black box, I was privy to a performance that - at the moment - was not meant to be seen, yet helped further my understanding of this repressed young man.

However, Jean Bilodeau as played by Querino is technically only half a character. When the play begins, we first meet his older self (Bob Brandenburg), a Bishop in the Catholic Church who has made a rare visit to prison to see inmate Simon Doucet (John E. Palmer). Forty years after his conviction, Doucet has invited the Bishop to his cell for a confession. In a twist, Doucet has instead arranged for his fellow inmates to hold the Bishop captive while they mount a play depicting the events of forty years past which led to Doucet's incarceration.

At the time, Doucet and the Bishop were fellow students in a private school in Roberval, Quebec. Their teacher, Father Saint-Michel (Michael Morman) is directing them in rehearsals for a play about St. Sebastian, young Simon (played by Ryan Ball) is acting opposite the Count Vallier de Tilly (Carlos Diaz), son of the eccentric Countess Marie-Laure de Tilly (Joshua Oliveras). The decidedly-homoerotic undertones of the play does not go unnoticed, nor does the obvious attraction Simon and Vallier have for each other - sharing a kiss and confirming their relationship when they assume nobody is looking. However, young Jean Bilodeau has discovered them, and in an argument that follows, Simon passionately kisses Bilodeau as well.

The Countess sees this forbidden kiss, believing it to be part of the St. Sebastian play. She marvels at how beautiful the play shall be, letting the moment slip to Simon's father and her footman, Timothée Doucet (played by the elder Simon Doucet [John E. Palmer]). Timothée is incensed at his son's behavior, beating him severely and causing Simon to break off his relationship with Vallier out of fear others may find out about them. To distract himself from his feelings for Vallier, Simon engages in a public romance with Madamoiselle Lydie-Anne De Rozier (Anthony Trujillo).

That forbidden kiss had set in motion a series of events that ultimately lead to Doucet's imprisonment. Over the course of a tense hour and forty minutes - no intermission - we learn exactly how this occurs, but more importantly, we are asked to believe it all based on the word of Doucet in his play-within-a-play. It's a bit of a mindwarp as we have to keep track not only of the story of elder Doucet and the Bishop, but also the story the Bishop watches of younger Simon, Vallier, and Bilodeau, and how it relates to the play they are performing as well. The layers upon layers these performers must wear makes following the story a welcome challenge because we get so caught up in the prison's play (rather than the overall LILIES play) that there were moments I forgot we were supposed to be in a little jail cell.

Characters were interacting in ways that even among the sparsity of the set, I could imagine the balcony where Madamoiselle Lydie-Anne advised Simon to engage in a relationship. When the Countess takes her son into the forest, even among the stark blankness of the stage floor, a field opened up and overtook them. The pixie-sized light emitting from matchsticks engulfed us as they grew into the flames of an attic's inferno. Imagination is a powerful tool, and the minimalist nature of LILIES necessitates that the audience use it in a way that fill in blanks without distracting from the powerhouse performances. I've never felt so invested in a story the way I did in LILIES.

Much of it can fall upon the familiarity that director Joseph Walsh has with the material. As mentioned before, he had twice-mounted this production before. Bringing it back for a third time - and first for Central Florida - gives him a more definitive authority on how to glean the best performances out of his company of players. He asks a lot of his performers, but also fosters a level of trust in his direction, and in each other as scene partners, that make them comfortable with both the material and each other. And the cozy nature of Theatre South Playhouse means that all these players must be "on" for the entire duration of the play. There's never a moment they can be considered off-stage, because no matter where you sit in this theatre of 80 seats, you're privy to something happening. The example I gave early on, young Bilodeau writing in his notebook, was one notable moment, but plenty of moments in LILIES invites a deeper understanding based on your perspective of the stage.

For example, my seat for this play was on what would traditionally be called the far stage right. From this angle, even though the players mostly kept the action to the center, it also meant that based on the scene blocking, I may have only seen the backside of performer Carlos Diaz, who plays Vallier. However, he knows that he can't ever just perform with his face. He is aware that sometimes he'll have his back to the audience. But he uses this to his advantage in a way that I've dubbed the Timothée Chalamet Backside Acting. In a 2018 review I wrote for the film Call Me By Your Name, I marveled at how camera blocking in the film allows Chalamet to act with his backside that takes the viewers through an emotional journey with his character of Elio. Likewise, Diaz employs a backside acting in LILIES that, from my viewing angle, better developed his character because I could see how he responded beyond a facial expression.

During some tense moments, I could see his shoulders quivering. At one point, perhaps subconsciously, his left knee would tic in a confrontation with Simon. A confession to his mother ends with a hug; seeing his body go limp into the embrace packed more punch than if I saw tears streaming down his face. Diaz himself may be the standout of the cast, playing Vallier with a hypertheatrical intensity early on (remember, this is a prisoner playing the character of Vallier), that eases into a more nuanced depiction as the play goes on. He blends between "I'm playing someone playing Vallier" to "I am Vallier" throughout, never breaking even when his back is to us.

Of course, Diaz isn't the only one who must invest in the School of Backside Acting. Even when a character is sitting still, they are still exposed and vulnerable to the audience's wandering eye. Bishop Bilodeau spends much of the first half sitting among us, occasionally calling out in protest to how an event is depicted or how is younger self is portrayed. But the actor becomes the audience while still needing to be "on" throughout it all. I found myself turning my head every so often seeing how he would react to what happened. Likewise, when a supporting player takes a seat on the bench to let a scene play out that they're not involved in, they're never allowed to just relax and step away from their character. Young Simon (Ryan Ball) spent a few minutes sobbing and having to compose himself. Then he headed to the bathtub just to wipe his face, all still playing in character.

LILIES is a performer's dream because each character requires an unfettered conviction to their portrayal. Every member of the cast brings their A-game as a result, transforming that tiny theatre into an even tinier jail cell, but miraculously making us believe we are touring through a small town in Canada at the same time. Theatre South Playhouse's small space benefits the story of LILIES and Walsh's direction of it. Within the intimacy in this little bubble of space and time, a voice could be as loud as a whisper and we'd feel it. I can't imagine seeing LILIES play out at, say, Doctor Phillips Center. The cramped intimacy would be lost and we'd be too removed from the action on the stage to be as invested as we were that night.

During the post-show talkback, the modest Walsh noted how he can't take credit for some of the creative stage directions - depiction of the elements, a jar of dirt, etc. - as they were already within the Bouchard text. But he's selling himself short, because stage directions only go so far. Coaching these performers into both a comfort and ease with the material of LILIES takes true talent and understanding. The words on a page come alive because of his direction and trust with his performers. I doubt, for one thing, that stage directions said half the cast should be barefoot. That was a creative decision of Walsh's and one that even serves a two-fold purpose. For the actors, Walsh noted that being barefoot on the stage helped ground them to the roles, that they could feel this floor beneath their feet. For myself as a Roman Catholic, the baring of feet always reminds me of Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet during the Last Supper. As such, it invited a new reading of these prisoners in the play: the Disciples of Doucet.

Much of the religious readings of LILIES is rooted in Christianity, perhaps most notably in the decision for elder Doucet to play his father Timothée. The definition of the Holy Trinity being "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" was never far from my mind when it came to my understanding of the character of Simon Doucet. Within LILIES, we get each part of that Trinity defined through elder Doucet himself as both the Father (Timothée) and the Son (Simon), while the prisoner playing him is Simon in spirit. Performers John E. Palmer and Ryan Ball play with this comparison a few times in the play, especially during a harsh confrontation between father and son about Simon's actions with Bilodeau. I can't imagine what elder Doucet was thinking as he confronted his "son" and remembered being on the other side of that conversation forty years past. Palmer and Ball sell the scene with an intensity that, like most of LILIES, makes us believe we are watching the truth unfold, forgetting that it's a dramatic rendition from one person's interpretation as such.

Interpretation of truth, perspective of events, and introspection of what they mean form the core of LILIES' message. It would be easier to say this is a celebration of love and acceptance, as its little-used subtitle ("The Revival of a Romantic Drama") would suggest. But love is only the surface-level layer of this play. Beneath it, as within the story, are the hidden and unspoken layers of how hate and intolerance shape this love, how it redefines what it means to love, and how the institutions that are meant to teach about love instead mask it with a hate.

One such example comes from an alternate reading of the symbolism of Sodom and Gomorrah within the play. LILIES never outright says the word "gay" or "homosexual" in the dialogue between characters. It's part of the play's message that love is love, and that the love between two young men or two young women should be no different than that between a man and a woman. However, the continued reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, the immorality of the cities, implicity always suggested a homosexual meaning in the play. And, perhaps, that is how Bouchard wrote the piece given the characters' journey. But at the final night's performance of LIILES, Rabbi David Kay (Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando) joined the talkback, noting that in the Torah, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not based on homosexuality and immorality, but rather on the cities' xenophobic intolerance of outsiders. As a Catholic, this revelation surprised me, as I'd only ever been taught that Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful cities that engaged in behavior unbecoming for God. This new layer to Sodom and Gomorrah adds to the genius of LILIES because it challenges the audience to look beyond what they know, what they're taught, and to consider other possibilities.

Even if this run of LILIES has ended, the experience of it - be it with the cast and crew or among the audience - will be with all involved for a long time. Performer Carlos Diaz likened one scene to the equivalent of five years of therapy; the content of the play is cathartic in that way. Nico Allen (Baroness De Hue) came away from the production a better performer, he felt simply being among the presence of the other performers has helped to improve his own craft. John E. Palmer left his job a year ago, with LILIES being one of his first projects taken on in the wake of that decision.

Director Joseph Walsh selected the perfect vehicle to launch Ghost Light Theatricals. Not just for the audience, who now can look forward to a new theatrical company joining the community in Central Florida, but for himself as well. In his words, "we use theater to open up conversation and fellowship. And this is why Ghost Light Theatricals was started: to produce, to educate, to build a community. Sitting together as one community, that's what matters. If you loved LILIES or hated it, we are sharing space and talking together." And, perhaps most importantly, "This group of people got me out of bed during one of the hardest times of my life."

Such is the power of great theatre. It can enlighten, it can heal, it can transform. I regret not having seen LILIES earlier than its closing performance, but am grateful that a reflection upon its impact to Central Florida helps me to say goodbye to it. Wherever Ghost Light Theatricals mounts its next production - be it Theater South Playhouse or the myriad of other venues at Central Florida's disposal, I eagerly await the opportunity to see what this company of players has to offer. In closing, this production of LILIES and the powerful forces on and off the stage bring to mind the timeless words of Edwin Marhkam:

There is a destiny that makes us brothers:

None goes his way alone:

All that we send into the lives of others

Comes back into our own.

I care not what his temples or his creeds,

One thing holds firm and fast

That into his fateful heap of days and deeds

The soul of man Is cast.

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