“Intense” violence and grief takes centre stage at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto
Playing at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Tom at the Farm is the most stressful play I’ve seen in the past year. This troubling thriller about grief, deception, desire and homophobia was written by Michel Marc Bouchard and was poetically translated by renowned literary translator Linda Gaboriau.
The story: Big-city Tom loses his lover in a accident and goes to the deceased’s family home for the funeral. At this remote dairy farm, Tom discovers that his lover has made no mention of their relationship. What’s more, the lover’s older brother Francis turns out to be a violent homophobe who demands that Tom hide his homosexuality from their mother Agatha. The need for secrecy reaches the point in which Francis even invents a girlfriend Nathalie (based on the deceased’s colleague), so Agatha can picture her youngest son as part of a typical young couple.
With the face of an abandoned puppy, Tom (Jeff Lillico) alternates between speaking to his dead lover and speaking out loud to Francis (Jeff Irving), Agatha (Rosemary Dunsmore), and the pretend girlfriend Nathalie (Christine Horne). I had no problem with this switching around; I immediately felt comfortable determining the proper recipients of Tom’s speech, which is a credit to Lillico’s stunning delivery and Eda Holmes’s direction.
Tom at the Farm is intense. The horror begins when Francis’s head lights up against the large black set (reminding me of Jack Nicholson’s face in the door in The Shining). Then we hold our breath for an hour as the lies unravel, the abuse begins, the story about tearing a boy’s face apart is revealed. Only towards the end do we get some relief from watching Tom get tied up and Agatha being lied to. Thankfully Nathalie reveals that her relationship with the deceased was fabricated in order to hide his homosexuality. From my seat I was pleading with Agatha to wake up and Tom to walk out the front door.
My theatre companion was especially touched by Agatha. Her plain clothes, confused look and old-fashioned mannerisms in the kitchen made her touching, but never ridiculous or unbelievable. Played by Dunsmore with sensitivity, Agatha is a passive bystander who has made turning a blind eye a long-standing habit. In the present, she is not properly alarmed by Tom’s accumulation of bruises (when Francis is clearly hurting Tom in the kitchen, all Agatha can do is ask them to “wrestle” outside). In the past, she has chosen to ignore one son’s homosexuality and the other son’s homophobia.
A few words about the translation: the central character Tom liked pulling words out of the bank of synonyms in his head, and Gaboriau clearly rose to the challenge of finding similarly evocative words in English. Her words not only represented Bouchard’s intentions, but contained the proper sounds. I’m thinking of the opening scene in particular: Tom was alone at a kitchen table — the ring of his words were so striking that I felt as I were watching a spoken word performance, except that this poem had a hundred times more the usual power.
Having seen the film in French and being a translator myself, I also appreciated Gaboriau’s choice of “nasty” to describe Nathalie’s fictitious bedroom habits and “it’s touchy” to indicate that a boy’s homosexuality was about to be revealed. Her translations were never literal.
In the Buddies program, artistic director Brendan Healy asks, “Does Tom really overcome his loss? Or does Tom’s love simply overcome him?” I’d say the latter. By the end of the play, I felt that Tom became a stranger to himself.
Watching the Tom get beat up over and over again reminded me of the Stockholm syndrome. Tom was the traumatized hostage who gained a newfound respect for farm life, called Agatha “mum” and even felt desire towards his tormentor Francis.
I highly recommend Tom at the Farm. You’ll be stunned. You’ll be talking about Bouchard’s story for the next week.
- Tom at the Farm is playing at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on 12 Alexander St.
- Showtimes: Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
- Tickets $20 to $31
- Tickets can be purchased at the door or online
Photo of Jeff Lillico and Jeff Irving by Jeremy Mimnagh