Stage Door Review
Saturday, April 13, 2019
by Pierre Guillois, Agathe L'Huillier & Olivier Martin Salvan, directed by Pierre Guillois
Compagnie le Fils du Grand Réseau, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
April 11-28, 2019
“The Play That Really Goes Wrong”
Bigre, a wordless 85-minute-long comedy, began life at Le Quartz, Scène nationale de Brest, in 2014. It was such a success it went on tour throughout France winning praise wherever it went. It played in Paris and was such a hit is was brought back a second time and won the Molière award for Best Comedy of 2017. Now Théâtre français de Toronto and Canadian Stage have teamed up to bring this play to Toronto. All one can say is that, despite the universality of Molière and Marivaux, the French must have a completely different sense of humour from present day Canadians. The play comes off as a series of slapstick skits and gags that are seldom funny and often repellent.
The set-up for the show is that three characters of very different personalities live in tiny adjacent apartments on the top floor of an apartment building or perhaps a building that has been subdivided into tiny apartments to cram as many tenants in as possible. Laura Léonard’s extraordinarily ingenious set shows us the three apartments all with their fourth wall missing and with only bare studs, not walls between them.
In the apartment nearest the stairs lives the nameless neat freak character played by Jonathan Pinto-Rocha. It is all white and devoid of knick-knacks of any kind except a white hand-held vacuum and a flat-screen computer. He has a clap-activated toilet that folds out from under his white sheetless, blanketless slab of a bed. He is overweight, wears a black suit and tie and vacuums his shoe-bottoms before entering his room. His main enjoyment seems to be singing to karaoke on his computer in Japanese and other languages or playing video games.
The apartment next to his stage right could not be more opposite. The tenant, Pierre Guillois*, co-author and director of the play, looks like an old very thin hippie with unkempt hair and a shaggy beard. He is a hoarder and his apartment with filled with cardboard boxes. It’s wonder he even has space to move, let alone cook or eat at his tiny dining table. He has no room for a bed and so sleeps in a hammock over his mess.
The apartment stage right of Pierre’s is smaller that the other two because it is directly under the slant of the mansard roof. The irony is that the woman played by Eléonore Auzou-Connes* who lives there is the tallest of the three tenants and wears high heels making her even taller. Here the walls are painted pink and the many miniature tables are covered with knick-knacks but not to excess. Unlike the other two tenants, who have windows to the outside, Eléonore has access to the roof via a skylight. Designer Léonard gives us no clue where Eléonore sleeps.
The show begins benignly enough by showing us the nature of each of the characters through their habits. Jonathan is a sullen and unfriendly germophobe, so the fact that he should find pleasure in an outgoing activity like karaoke is an amusing contrast. Pierre’s seeming lack of cleanliness and social norms (he wears socks with flip-flops) makes for number of cringe-making habits like cooking a can of beans in its can, but this also makes him appear notably poorer than his other floormates. The irony of the opposite behaviours of Jonathan and Pierre is that both germophobia and hoarding are signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Strangely, we are given much less insight into Eléonore other than she is accident-prone. Somehow she manages to afford a wide range of clothing but at the same time the play shows her trying to teach herself different professions from books and using the two men as her guinea pigs.
While the set created by Pierre Guillois with Agathe L'Huillier and Olivier Martin Salvan would seem to provide a rich source of complex interactions between characters of such different personalities, one of the great disappointments of Bigre is that does not occur. All three seem to get along right from the start. One would think that Jonathan would have nothing to do with a slob like Pierre, but he buys a magazine from him every time he comes home from work. Even when major events ought to disturb their relationships, they still get along and no significant story develops.
What little plot there is consists in the tepid rivalry of Jonathan and Pierre for the attention of Eléonore, but this is not managed in any logical way. In a farce the characters may be cartoonish but they at least have to be consistent, but in Bigre that is simply not the case. Apparently trying to teach herself chiropractic, Eléonore manipulates Pierre to such an extent that he has to wear a neck brace afterwards. When she then moves on to trying to teach herself hairdressing, it really makes no sense that Pierre should be waiting for her to finish with Jonathan while he is still wearing his neck brace unless we assume he is extremely stupid of excessively smitten. After Eléonore’s disastrous treatment of Jonathan’s hair, it is hard to imagine he, punctilious as he is supposed to be, would return to her when she is trying to teach herself to be a nurse and take a blood sample.
As the play proceeds the humour degenerates. Eléonore climbs up on the roof to sun herself. She dares to remove her top. She hears a noise. It is Pierre, a birdwatcher, looking with binoculars away from her. Outraged she hits him with the rain gutter and he falls from his window. (Next time we see him he has multiple casts besides his neck brace – ha ha.) A helicopter flies over. Eléonore is outraged again. Day changes to night for no reason except that it allows the helicopter to a shine a spotlight on Eléonore’s chest. Then it is day again.
In a more disturbing example. we see hat Pierre has bought a bunny. Time passes and it has grown to a full-sized rabbit. We think he has bought it as a pet but , no, he pulls out a meat cleaver, yet he can’t bring himself to use it. That would be enough, but Pierre then takes the rabbit to the loo downstage right. Is he going to drown it. Maybe, but then chain comes off the toilet tank so he strangles the rabbit (unseen by us). Next thing we know he takes a full-sized real skinned rabbit from the loo to hang up in his apartment. After a blackout we see Pierre trying to eat soup, we assume made from the rabbit, but he can’t do it. This might have been funny, except that we know Pierre managed to kill, skin and gut the rabbit and then chop it up which are traumatic enough events for a delicate soul like Pierre. So how can his balking at eating rabbit soup be funny?
The nadir of the main part of the show comes when Eléonore has Jonathan and Pierre over for a party. The two men would both like to be alone with Eléonore, but bodily functions get in the way. First, Jonathan has to urinate in the downstage loo for an inordinately long amount of time as he regrets being away from Eléonore. Then, Pierre has to rush there to vomit and regrets being away from Eléonore. Finally, Eléonore has to rush there to defecate. We’ve heard the sounds the two men made, now for a horribly long time we hear all the noises in great detail that defecation can produce. Eléonore is embarrassed, but the two men, who we thought were rivals, suddenly hug in a close dance together. First, the defecation noises are simply gross. Second, is the men dancing supposed just to be funny in a homophobic way or is it actually supposed to be significant.
Eventually, the gags even violate the strict rules of invisible walls and doors that the cast has so carefully established. Twice, near the end, the invisible wall between Pierre and Eléonore’s apartments is broached simply for the sake of a joke and once Eléonore exits Pierre’s apartment through what till then had been an invisible wall.
Simply from a technical point of view, Bigre is an amazing feat. The coordination of the three actors on stage with their two assistants off stage must be absolutely perfect for any of the series of sight gags to work. We can appreciate the amount of work that must have been required to make sure everyone’s timing is impeccable. Nevertheless, in the best farces and in the best silent movies, which Bigre attempts to imitate, the characters have definite goals and the bizarre things that happen are seen to occur naturally in the course of the characters pursuing those goals.
In Bigre the series of events are mostly unmotivated and are set up just to be gags. The actors and their assistants must function in clockwork fashion for the play to proceed, but we don’t feel we are watching ordinary people being caught up in extraordinary circumstances as in the great silent comedies. Rather, the character in Bigre seems like three human puppets being manipulated in mostly inexplicable ways in a desperate attempt to make us laugh.
The show has two endings. The first, when Eléonore returns to the apartment building after an absence almost has the possibility of finally bringing out the humanity in these would-be comic automatons. Unfortunately, after the applause, the actors give us a totally unnecessary encore than ends in a terribly gross effect that ruins whatever inclination to goodwill we might have had. The whole show comes off like the terribly contrived British farce The Play That Goes Wrong, except without a plot or ever being funny.
The play of one humourless skit after another was so tedious to watch I couldn’t wait for it to be over. In French, “bigre” is a minced oath used in place of the strong form “bougre” when someone is unpleasantly surprised. It’s like saying, “Darn it!” when something bad happens instead of “Damn it!” Despite all the hard work that everyone has obviously put into creating this show, it felt like it was all time wasted. “Bougre!” to that.
*From April 19-28 Bruno Fleury takes over Pierre’s role and from April 20-28, co-author Agathe L’Huillier takes over Eléonore’s role.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Agathe L’Huillier, Jonathan Pinto-Rocha and Pierre Guillois; Pierre Guillois and Agathe L’Huillier; Agathe L’Huillier, Jonathan Pinto-Rocha and Pierre Guillois. © 2017 Fabienne Rappeneau.
For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com.