Call it the week of strange valentines. I actually sent--and received--one or two of them myself.
As millions took to the streets across the globe on Saturday, thousands joined them in Raleigh, gathering around the old Capitol Building to demonstrate their love of peace. While it may have been the oddest--and most passionate--valentine I'd seen in quite some time, it still remained one misinterpreted by the 70-odd counter-demonstrators whom police kept at bay behind barricades on the opposite side of Salisbury Street.
It's a theme C. Glen Matthews, Raleigh Ensemble Players' artistic director, has returned to on more than one occasion in recent years: Love doesn't always come in conventional packages, and its varied expressions aren't always immediately recognized as such. Nor, on second thought, should they necessarily be: After all, over the years, murder and miscalculation have been more frequently credited to love than the occasional world masterpiece.
Such thoughts have occupied the heart of several REP productions in recent years. They were at the center of 2000's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, a show as disturbing as it was rewarding, and the following year's Never the Sinner. They also drive REP's current offering, Lilies, or the Revival of a Romantic Drama, a translation of a 1987 play by French-Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard.
Bouchard's play-within-a-play echoes both Shakespeare's Hamlet and Peter Weiss' profound, profane 20th-century masterwork, Marat/Sade. In 1952, after serving a 30-year prison sentence, Simon Doucet crafts a theatrical production to prick the conscience of Jean Bilodeau, a former classmate who played a role in his imprisonment and is now a bishop in the Catholic Church. Since Doucet's performers are actually former inmates he met while in prison, and Bilodeau is held against his will after being lured to the theater under false pretense, Lilies' interior play turns into something of a command performance and a j'accuse, all in one. Think of Ralph Edwards' classic TV chestnut, This is Your Life--but without the good will.
Doucet plays out for Bilodeau scenes from their provincial Catholic school in 1912, where not-so-latent homosexuality among both students and clergy finds expression in a series of dubious amateur theatrical productions. The flamboyant excesses--and minimal costumes--of Father St-Michele's depiction of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian threaten young Doucet and his poetic, idealized lover Vallier, with exposure at the hands of an earlier, self-righteous Bilodeau.
As Doucet's theatrical retrospective spins out, playwright Bouchard's script takes on the lyrical aspects of Tennessee Williams in places. Unfortunately, it also faithfully echoes some of the Southern playwright's more maudlin excesses, with considerably less felicity. Transparent symbolism is employed here (of the variety in which fire equals dangerous passion, and balloons represent the possibility of escape), along with histrionic dialogue and over-the-top plot devices, soapbox oratory--and even a doomed, eccentric matriarch with artistic sensibilities.
But if Bouchard's text adds little to the canon of plays about gay victimization, this particular production plays to its weaknesses. Understandably, Matthews caters to Doucet's idealizations of young love by casting Joseph Brack and Sean Brosnahan as high-school versions of Doucet and Vallier. But in these and other casting choices, he arguably sacrifices half of the schismatic double-game in play in Bouchard's script.
Each and every one of Doucet's players are ex-convicts. Indeed, that status gives the performance area a necessary frame of menace: We should be convinced that any member of this mob is capable of harming or killing the older Bilodeau if he tries to escape, or if the group concludes that justice demands it.
But on one level, David Britt's finely-nuanced interpretation of the older Simon Doucet still seemed miscalculated on opening night. As directed by Matthews, Britt's Doucet comes off too broken a man to believably threaten Bishop Bilodeau--even when he's given a knife to do it with. If Bilodeau's never really in danger, if he can believably leave at any time, the stakes surrounding this endeavor are fundamentally lowered.
Ironically, part of the reason this happens is because the majority of Doucet's ensemble proves too good at acting. When the cadre sinks too far into their historical roles, too many leave their prisoner aspects behind. In addition to Brack and Brosnahan's redoubtable single-characterizations mentioned above, Brett Wilson's tasteful work is letter-perfect as Vallier's addled mother, the Countess--a victory that renders his character as a jailhouse colleague to Doucet all but invisible. Similar may be said for Jason Roberts as Father St. Michel.
Thomas Mauney provides the notable exception to this trend in his role as the rich, dissembling Mlle. de Rozier, Doucet's prospective early bride. In his finely balanced performance, we see at once the mask, the man and the menace beneath it. Were the rest of the cast up to this level, this production's achievements could be substantial.
As it stands, Gregor McElvogue lingers on long after he could have escaped as an underdeveloped Bishop Bilodeau, and we don't receive or believe the elder Doucet's relationships with a cadre of cons half his age. Those underfunded relationships betray the production again at the end, when the verdict on young Bilodeau's duplicity is returned.
Designer Miyuki Su's set of wooden branches and peat moss is marvelously odorific and sensuous. Her lighting design of suspended candles in mason jars at the stage's perimeter is ambient and imaginative--even if it occasionally blocks the audience's view.
As the weasely schoolboy Bilodeau, Brandon Roberts believably explores an unfortunate young man whose love, jealousy and religious affectations draw him into a psychosexual double-bind. Here, it's played out as the theatrical equivalent of a car crash in slow motion, as young Bilodeau simultaneously befriends and betrays Doucet in escalating gestures of dangerous ambivalence. "Aren't you grateful to me for everything I've done to keep you pure?" his Bilodeau asks young Doucet after one particularly monstrous episode, before he concludes, "I have to save your soul."
As we watch, a character whose religious beliefs--and home environment--effectively place him beyond the possibility of love slowly implodes in his attempts to express what's really within him.
In the proper dramatic vehicle such a sight would be compelling. But the excesses in both the script and this lengthy, intermissionless performance echo the characters' miscalculations on stage, and limit the success of Lilies.
Aside from the fact that Samm-Art Williams' The Dance on Widow's Row lacks a beginning and an end, it's a fairly entertaining comedy--provided, of course, that you're prepared to overlook certain reductive characters. Williams is a North Carolina playwright whose most notable hit, Home, played Broadway for eight months in 1980. More recently, Burning Coal Theater Company attempted to rehabilitate his Black Birds Don't Sing by replacing last season's "High Noon at the Rialto" series with a playwriting internship for Williams that was bookended by a set of before-and-after staged readings. The results from that endeavor were ambitious and promising, but still inconclusive.
By comparison, call Dance inconclusive, but without the ambition. In this two-act paint-by-numbers African-American sitcom, four man-hungry widows--actually, make that three man-hungry widows and one frumpy church lady--cook up a party to attract a group of eligible elder men to Magnolia's house on "Widow's Row," a place the entire town believes by now to be jinxed. Since this widow's quartet has so far put over 10 men in the ground, the whole neighborhood is now generally believed to be unhealthful for African-American males.
After some spirited dialogue among the ladies, Deacon Hudson enters, a basically tasteful religious man on the make. On the other hand, Newly, his comrade, is a completely craven Vietnam vet who jumps for the liquor bottle whenever anyone even says the word "death," a word that comes up quite a lot in this play. When local turkey magnate Randolph Spears shows up in his finest purple threads, four women compete for three guys with more or less predictable results.
I've enjoyed the previous performances of Barbette Hunter, Sherida McMullan, Angela Ray, Andrea Smith and C. Delton Streeter. Here, they gamely attempt, along with LaMark Wright and Kenneth Hinton, to perform comedic CPR on Williams' script.
For a while they, and director John Harris, actually bring it back to life. Though some of the ladies' intramural catfights seem to come out of nowhere, others do genuinely amuse. While Simi and Magnolia's soapboxes grow bigger as the evening progresses, each of the four women retains moments of genuine empathy. Given the actors in question, indeed, we'd expect no less and we are not disappointed.
Still, despite the efforts of all hands, the arc of Williams' script leads but to the grave--in more ways than one. After one of the men dies, something else leaves the stage.
It becomes apparent that Magnolia's not the only one who doesn't know what to do with a dead body: the same's true for her playwright. As a result, a promising comedic situation is allowed to dwindle into terminal anticlimax, and a frequently funny--if dated--Dance grinds to a halt in mid-measure.