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Lilies in Heat

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Hothouse Flowers: Diana Troxell and Dylan Wilcox star in the U.S. premiere of "Lilies," a tale of passion and thwarted love opening Friday night at Louden Nelson Theater in Santa Cruz.

The baroque meets the mythic in US premiere of French Canadian's passionate play

By Sarah Phelan

Spring smells particularly sweet to Marc Michel Bouchard. You see, mes amis, this French Canadian isn't your usual tourist, come simply to trade frostbite for sunburn. He's here for the lilies. Not for the virginal Easter lilies, whose seductive perfume hangs heavily on the air these days, but for the U.S. premiere of his Lilies, which opens in Santa Cruz on Good Friday.

No stranger to success, Bouchard will be flying down courtesy of the Canadian consulate when he bursts out of the snowy cocoon of another nostril-freezing winter in Montreal, shedding his snow boots for a few sun-soaked days. Despite his relative youth, at 38 he's already an internationally acclaimed playwright, holding an impressive bouquet of 20 staged plays, many of which have been presented in theaters worldwide. Throughout this rapidly blooming career, Bouchard has refused to tiptoe through the theatrical tulips, preferring to tackle the thorniest topics--incest, child abuse, inter-family intrigues--as he takes a fresh look at some of society's most marginalized members.

Lilies is no exception. Deliberately subtitled The Revival of a Romantic Drama, it's about homophobia and the gay romance of two star-crossed teenage boys, Simon and Vallier, who fall in love Romeo and Julio-stylewhile rehearsing for a passion play. And it's these fresh-faced gay teens who are the lily-whites, the pansies, of the original French title: Les Feluettes. When it first premiered in Montreal in 1987, this fire-starter of a play blew away audiences with its volatile mix of religion, sex and grandiose fantasy.

Considering that Lilies has been translated into several languages and produced around the world, why on earth did Bouchard sell the rights of Lilies to a small theater company in Santa Cruz?The answer is a romantic drama in itself, the story of Central Coast Theatre Works' Sam Lovett's passion for this play.

When a friend pressed a copy into his hands, insisting that he read it, Lovett was directing CCTW's production of Six Degrees of Separation. But he read it aloud to his wife, Cynthia Parks, who is now artistic consultant and producer of the show, and she remembers that "the play was so sweeping, so moving, that Sam cried. Afterwards, he sat down and wrote to Bouchard's agent, saying how moved he was--that he would like to buy the rights, and direct the play, and explaining that we are a young upstart theater company."

At the time of writing, Lovett had no idea that Bouchard was the most celebrated French Canadian playwright in Canada and an international celebrity. Or that since first premiering in Montreal in 1987, Lilies had already amassed critical acclaim from Paris to Melbourne. Or that the film version, with screenplay and cameo appearance by Bouchard, is slated to debut at the Cannes Film Festival in June.

Lovett knew none of this, but as he sheepishly admits, "sometimes ignorance is bliss!" All he knew was that during his first reading of the play, he'd failed to notice that all the players on the cast list were men. By the time he realized that those were men in the female roles, he didn't like the idea, and got Bouchard on the telephone to boldly suggest uncrossing the genders.

Bouchard was shocked. That wasn't all, either. To add insult to injury, Lovett, who knew only that Bouchard was a published playwright, went on to ask him what his day job was. Merde! You could have knocked Lovett over with a feather when he discovered that Bouchard makes his living from writing full time.

But far from being offended, the man from Montreal was amused and endeared by this refreshing naiveté. Proving that he's a hopeless romantic, more interested in art and integrity than financial profit, Bouchard not only agreed to cast women as women, but also to sell Central Coast Theatre Works the rights.

No Camp Follower

Talking long-distance from Montreal, Bouchard clearly has mastered English over the last 10 years without losing his wonderfully sexy accent. He confesses that he "found it extraordinary that someone read my play, and decided they wanted to produce the show just because they really loved it." He remembers witnessing a reading of Lilies a few years ago in New York, where he "was appalled at how it was handled as a high-camp drag piece lacking in any emotional depth. It left me feeling that these Americans had bastardized my play."

This time 'round, though, Bouchard is confident that his play is in good hands with Lovett as director of the monthlong run at Louden Nelson Theater. Bouchard admits that he's "delighted to come here and have a relationship with the work. It's wonderful to be a playwright. Each time you come into a new family of actors and actresses who have already been working on your play intensely--by the time you arrive, they are already part of the family."

Actually, it's more like blood brothers, if CCTW's hardworking sweat-and-tears approach to this upcoming theatrical white-flower day is any indication. And, judging from the Christ figure on the promotional flier, the Easter weekend opening of Lilies was a cute piece of marketing to tie in with Easter lilies and the crucifixion of Christ, n'est-ce-pas? Mais, non! As Lovett patiently explains, "that's not Christ on the poster. It's Saint Sebastian." Oh, silly ignoramus me.

Still, Sebastian was a Christian martyr and he's been linked symbolically with lilies ever since he had the misfortune to run up against Caesar, who demanded that he renounce Christianity. When Sebastian wouldn't go for it, the emperor had him dance on hot coals. Not to be defeated, at least not on the spiritual plane, Sebastian clung to the image of a soothing bed of cooling lily petals underfoot. Evidently, he really had soul (Lord forgive me!) because he transcended his torture, confirmed his faith in Christ and was promoted to Saint Sebastian for his pains, even if it was posthumously.

Speaking of torturous punishment, it's no coincidence that Lilies begins in a federal prison in 1952. Simon, now a convict, confronts the bishop, who has come to hear confession. It turns out that Simon went to prison as the result of this bishop's testimony back when he and two friends were teenagers. Ripe with intrigue and betrayal, the drama unfolds through flashbacks to schooldays 40 years earlier in 1912, becoming a double period piece and a play within a play, full of wonderful turn-of-the -century costumes.

It's easy to draw parallels between this tale of teenage gays, who become victims of a homophobic Catholic society, and that of the history of the Quebecois, whose language and culture has been marginalized and repressed by the dominant anglophone (English-speaking) society. However, Bouchard emphasizes that "it's not about oppression. I wanted to write a love story, hence the subtitle The Revival of a Romantic Drama," he says. "It's not necessarily a political or gay flag, but more a love story located in a historical period setting. Why? Because no one ever told me a gay love story when I was young."

So, while based on a historical event, the story deliberately portrays a bunch of aristocrats in a fabulous hotel in order to create a romantic environment. The play is about betrayal, too--in this case, a trio of teenage boys is caught in a love triangle--and we see how the bishop uses religion to hide behind, instead of facing up to, the truth. Or, as Bouchard so eloquently puts it, "How many times when we are on the edge, in a nonconformist situation, does the worst threat come from people in the same situation?"


Lilies by Marc Michel Bouchard. Bouchard will attend Friday night's U.S. premiere of Lilies, as well as a gala reception in his honor at the Pope Gallery immediately following the play. Lilies plays Friday and Saturday (8pm) through May 4, with a Sunday (6:30pm) performance on April 7, at the Louden Nelson Center Theater, 301 Center St., SC. Partial proceeds of each show benefit the Santa Cruz AIDS Project. Call 429-7461 for tickets.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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