Tom at the Farm
Written by Michel Marc Bouchard
Directed by Eda Holmes
Starring Jeff Lillico
At Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto
Three and a half stars
Brantwood: 1920 - 2020
Written and directed by Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman
Music and lyrics by Bram Gielen, Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson
At Theatre Sheridan in Oakville, Ont.
Finally, Tom at the Farm.
Linda Gaboriau's English translation of Michel Marc Bouchard's 2011 play has at last made its way to the stage, 2 1/2 years after its intended premiere was the most confounding casualty of the Factory Theatre's acrimonious divorce from former artistic director Ken Gass.
But director Eda Holmes's sexy production turns out to have been well worth the wait – and now that the horse is out of the barn, I suspect Bouchard's sharp, sadomasochistic script will be performed across the country.
After his lover dies in a car accident, Tom (Jeff Lillico) heads to the farm where his lover grew up –only to find that his lover lied to everyone in his life.
Agatha (Rosemary Dunsmore), his lover's mother, knows nothing of Tom – and believes her son has a French girlfriend named Nathalie. And Francis (Jeff Irving), his lover's brother, wants to keep his mother and his community in the dark about the truth – and threatens Tom to make sure they do.
I have to keep writing "lover" because the deceased character in the play has no name. He exists only as the memory of relationships – and, in his absence, those relationships are projected onto other characters.
In his preface to the published play, Bouchard talks about how, in the throes of grief, "other people – a brother, a son, a lover – become synonymous with the one who is no longer there." Here, in a way, Tom becomes Francis's brother and Agatha's son – and a one-night visit turns into a long-term stay on the farm, half-willing, half-imprisoned.
Bouchard's writing is a little larger than life – particularly in the case of Tom. His dialogue is more of a running monologue delivered to his late lover, interrupted by dialogue with the other characters. While this is stylized, it's also quite true to how many people react to any unexpected loss when there is still so much to say.
Francis, who says less, is the more intriguing character, however – the one who keeps you guessing. Does he want to keep his brother's sexuality a secret in this small town in order to protect him? Or is it because of his own homophobia? Or is it that he has his own secrets he wants to keep buried? Irving's performance allows for a multitude of interpretations – and he makes both Francis's unhinged love and unhinged violence believable.
Having read the play in advance, I watched Tom at the Farm less for its twists and turns (which are delicious) than for how the actors would sell them. Why doesn't Tom just leave when Francis greets him with violence? There's an element of horror to Bouchard's play and, at times, you want to shout: Don't go into the barn, Tom!
But there's also a fatalistic energy to the action, too, reminiscent of Greek tragedy – or perhaps I'm thinking of other plays set on farms and inspired by Greek tragedy like Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms.
Bouchard's script definitely needs to find the right tone in performance – and Camellia Koo's design gets the expressionism of the piece right. Two wooden walls stripped to the studs, with a large mound of dirt and grass in the centre, behind which lies a pit filled with cow carcasses feasted upon by coyotes (or so Francis says).
But there is sometimes a naturalism to the acting in Holmes's production that doesn't quite fit. As Tom, Lillico gives a rendering of grief that is hyper-real, with quivering voice and plenty of waterworks. While it's impressive, on a technical level, it seems at odds with the character's eulogy to his lover – "Part of me is dying and I can't cry" – and makes the fever dream atmosphere of the show hard to settle into.
Tom at the Farm remains fascinating, however– and darkly funny, too, especially when the imaginary Nathalie shows up, played by Christine Horne speaking a hilarious broken French.
Also now on stage
Normally, I don't review student shows, but Brantwood: 1920-2020 is really something else. It's immersive theatre on a scale you're not likely to see professionally in Canada.
Brantwood is a site-specific collection of mini-musicals written for Sheridan College's musical theatre performance graduating class; the action sprawls over three floors of a closed school in Oakville, Ont. There are no guides – you choose your own adventure, following any one of the 44 actors in the show, or just exploring Jon Grosz and Kenneth MacKenzie's incredible set on your own.
Audiences meet on Sheridan's campus at the main entrance, where graduation gowns are distributed and you are shipped out by school bus to the actual location of the play for three hours.
The conceit is this: We, the audience, are alumni of Brantwood, returning for one last reunion before our alma mater is transformed into condos. After a time capsule is unearthed five years ahead of schedule on the front lawn, however, the ghosts of teachers and students and 95 years of principals named Headley (all played by Ralph Small) are summoned back to school. Their stories are what you stumble upon in the hallways, in the classrooms and in secret rooms behind the stairwells. (Fifteen hours worth of stories if you were to watch all the scenes sequentially.)
Writer/directors Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman are clear about their inspiration: Punchdrunk, the British company behind the long-running New York hit Sleep No More. If you look closely, you'll even find a couple of the signature white masks work by Punchdrunk's audience members hidden in the set.
But Brantwood is more than Punchdrunk with gowns instead of masks. It's an ambitious attempt to marry musical theatre with immersive theatre.
The two art forms aren't a natural fit – and there's a reason Punchdrunk tells its stories through dance, not dialogue. But at its best moments, Brantwood is like wandering into a series of flash mobs – and the timing of Christopher Thornborrow's intricate sound design of this $350,000 production is simply a marvel. (I stepped into a stage-management room by accident and it looked like NASA.)
The dialogue I heard, penned by Mitchell and Tepperman, is very is on-the-nose, very Degrassi, with many of the plot lines based around the homophobia, sexism and racism of the past (that also haunt our present). But I'm not sure subtlety would work in this format – better that you walk into a room and fairly instantly know the relationships and what's at stake.
No star rating because they're students and I saw the first preview. But I would go back to Brantwood at least one more time if I weren't about to leave on holiday.
Three tips: Don't eat the pickles in the fridge (I was chastised for this); do eat the hot dogs in the cafeteria; and pull back banks of lockers until you find the future.
Tom at the Farm continues to May 10. Visit buddiesinbadtimes.com. Brantwood continues to May 3. Visit tickets.sheridancollege.ca.