Canadian Stage & Théâtre français de Toronto/Bigre, co-written and created by Pierre Guillois, Agathe L’Huillier and Olivier Martin-Salvan, directed by Pierre Guillois, Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, Apr. 11 to 28. Tickets available at 416-368-3110 or canadianstage.com.
During my many years of being associated with theatre, I have discovered that physical comedy either grabs you or it doesn’t. If you start laughing at the beginning, you’ll laugh all the way through. If not, you might find the stage antics, at best, amusing, or at worst, just plain silly. In the case of the French import Bigre, I’m in the latter camp, although out of fairness, there were many members of the audience who thought the show was hilarious.
Compagnie le Fils du grand réseau under artistic director Pierre Guillois, situated in Brest, France, first produced Bigre in 2014. The production has gone on to become something of a sensation, with Guillois elevated to theatre darling. This Toronto run is its North American premiere. Guillois created the show with Agathe L’Huillier and Olivier Martin-Salvan. He also directed the production, and is one of the five actors who rotate through the three roles. Guillois was one of the actors in the performance I attended.
The setting is three very cramped attic apartments in Paris inhabited by (as described in the program), a tall thin man (Guillois), a big man (Jonathan Pinto-Rocha), and a very curvaceous blonde (Eléonore Auzou-Connes). The tall thin man is a hoarder, and his place is so packed with boxes that he has to sleep in a hammock above the chaos. The big man is obsessed by technology, and his immaculate, gleaming white home is filled with smart gadgets. He claps his hands, and a hidden toilet swings out. He even has his own karaoke machine. The blonde’s attractive apartment is the most conventional, but she is also the biggest klutz. Set designer Laura Léonard deserves all kinds of praise for her imaginative rendering of three very different spaces, not to mention the roof, which is the blonde’s preferred place to sunbathe.
The particular twist of this production is that the actors only make sounds, spout gibberish, or, in the case of the big man, sing. Bigre is, in effect, a silent movie, except for the words emanating from their radios and television sets, so the show rests on the strength of the visual imagery and the actors’ ability to convey it, which they do very well. All are expressive performers. It just depends on whether the audience finds what they are doing to be funny. It comes down to a matter of taste.
The word “bigre” translates into the English interjection “bugger”, which is an apt title, given that I’d be swearing too with all the things that go wrong. The action of the play involves the trio’s misadventures that naturally occur just by trying to live their daily lives and interacting with each other. Take for example, the blonde. She accidentally puts deadly cleaning fluid in her goldfish bowl and then tries to revive the creature in a most bizarre fashion. She uses the men as guinea pigs to try out new careers such as massage therapy, hairdressing and lab technician, with the predictable hapless results. She also throws a party where each of the three uses her toilet, each with its own surprise. Some encounters are not so friendly. The air vent between the apartments of the big man and the tall thin man backs onto the latter’s pantry cupboard, and the former is not above reaching in and stealing his neighbour’s cookies.
In his program notes, Guillois seems to imply that there is a deeper meaning in Bigre, that these “anti-heroes” are, in his words, clinging “to anything that looks like love, life or hope”. I did not see this, and in truth, does it really matter? Sight gags, pratfalls, gimmicks, sound effects, not to mention hovering helicopters, leaking roofs, and fires — all the tools of physical farce are present, and these are what drive the show.
Bigre is ambitious, even inventive, as the three actors keep up a killing pace with a barrage of mishaps. Even I, who found the show only mildly entertaining, have to give the creators and the cast an “A” for effort.