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This physical-comedy play stars Pierre Guillois, Eléonore Auzou-Connes and Jonathan Pinto-Rocha.

Fabienne Rappeneau/other

  • Title: Bigre
  • Co-written and created by: Pierre Guillois, Agathe L’Huillier and Olivier Martin-Salvan
  • Actors: Pierre Guillois, Eléonore Auzou-Connes, Jonathan Pinto-Rocha
  • Company: Compagnie le Fils du Grand Réseau, presented by Canadian Stage and Théâtre français de Toronto
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to April 28

rating

Some theatre just gets lost in translation – even when it features no language to translate at all.

Bigre, a silent sketch show that won a Molière Award for best comedy in France, is making its North American premiere through Canadian Stage in Toronto in collaboration with the Théâtre français de Toronto.

This physical-comedy play created by Pierre Guillois, Agathe L’Huillier and Olivier Martin-Salvan is big in la République – but then so was Jerry Lewis.

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If you share the French taste for slapstick and cross-eyed mugging and somewhat dated gender stereotypes, you won’t be disappointed.

The scenario is this: On the top floor of a house, three characters without names rent three tiny rooms and share a toilet in the hall.

On the top floor of a house, the three characters without names rent three tiny rooms and share a toilet in the hall.

Fabienne Rappeneau

One fellow (Jonathan Pinto-Rocha), let’s call him Félix, is a bigger guy obsessed with tidiness, living in an all-white pod and vacuuming the soles of his feet whenever he comes home. His immediate neighbour, let’s call him Oscar (Pierre Guillois), is a scrawnier chap who seems to be a hoarder, has a scraggly beard and gives the vague impression of being a flasher.

The third resident, who just moved in, is a young woman, and that seems to be her defining characteristic – let’s call her, I dunno, Mademoiselle (Eléonore Auzou-Connes). She dresses in short skirts and dresses, likes to sunbathe topless on the roof – and is always trying out new professions that she just can’t seem to wrap her head around.

Félix is the victim of Mademoiselle’s attempt to become a hairdresser, the top of his coif burned off by chemicals, while Oscar bears the brunt of her dabbling in chiropractic and has to hobble around in a neck brace and a leg cast for a scene afterwards. (A serious shout-out to the cast’s funny walks – the way Mr. Guillois, in particular, moves around after his body is mangled is very skilled physical comedy.)

Designer Laura Léonard’s set is probably the main star of the show. Its hidden quirks are the source of most of the humour – a toilet that appears out of the wall when someone claps; a sink that shoots water across one room when a plunger is used in the room next door.

Bigre is at its most successful when dealing with self-contained sight gags, prop comedy or mime routines

FABIENNE RAPPENEAU

Three rooms in a row on a stage makes Bigre look like a live-action three-panel newspaper comic – and the dramaturgy of the show seems likewise inspired by old daily strips such as Blondie or Beetle Bailey where characters and plot never develop. The look of the characters costumed by Axel Aust is more out of French BD, however, even verging on Charlie Hebdo-style caricature in the case of Mr. Guillois’s gross character.

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Bigre is at its most successful when dealing with self-contained sight gags, prop comedy or mime routines, though. It’s at its most insufferable when it tries to string together some semblance of a story, as in an extended sequence featuring a tedious romantic arc between Félix and Mademoiselle that is accompanied by a highly irritating song by a French pop-folk band with a singer who sings in English. (“You didn’t seem to need anyone when I met you,” he whines on what felt like an endless loop. “You didn’t seem you wanted to be somebody’s wife.”)

At the same time as this is going on, there’s a dark counterpoint storyline involving Oscar and a pet rabbit (played by a real rabbit, looking absolutely terrified) that I found more disturbing than funny, but that at least was original.

Then Bigre hits the reset button again.

French critics have mentioned Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Mr. Bean in describing this show. A Canadian Stage publicist who suggested Bigre was like “a silent episode of Three’s Company” seemed more on the mark, as the sexual politics seem like they date to that sitcom’s era. It’s not that it is offensively sexist – just that the whole conceit, even in well-executed moments, feels stale. A single lady living alone … in the same apartment building as two single men? Ooh-la-la!

In its appeal to lowest-common-denominator humour (butt-cracks, fart jokes, an exploding toilet), Bigre made The Play That Goes Wrong, an English-language commercial hit that Mirvish Productions recently brought to Toronto, look like a high-class night at the theatre.

I really have no qualms with Théâtre français de Toronto bringing Bigre to town, but this is the type of show that makes you glad the Matthew Jocelyn era at Canadian Stage and the publicly subsidized indulgence of his out-of-touch tastes is coming to a close.

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If you’re going to program a piece that’s just pure entertainment and has no language barrier, there’s so much work, close to home or from further away, that would have connected more strongly with a wider swath of Toronto and brought in a new audience beyond the francophiles Mr. Jocelyn courted.

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