Review: VACHES At Canadian Stage

It's a moo-sical that will have you moo-ving enthusiastically to its zany beat...even if the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese.

By: May. 19, 2023
Review: VACHES At Canadian Stage

How far would you go for a cow? In VACHES, Theatre Francais de Toronto's presentation of what they call "the first Franco-Ontario musical" by Créations In Vivo Productions, the Canadian Stage Berkeley Street upstairs theatre is transformed into small-town Casselman, Ontario, where a farmer faces the age-old conundrum of what happens when the next generation doesn't want to follow in your hoofsteps.

TfT's production, "very freely inspired by a true story," is performed with manic gleefulness by a game cast in French with English surtitles and has the vibe of a supersized Fringe production (in a good way). It's a moo-sical that will have you moo-ving enthusiastically to its zany beat...even if the plot has more holes than Swiss cheese.

Stéphane Guertin and Olivier Nadon, the playwrights of VACHES, set up its plot quickly with a few broad strokes and some cheery musical numbers. There's the kind farmer Jean (Constant Bernard), who lost his wife a few years ago in an automobile accident, and his quiet, industrious farmhand Chris (Maxim David), who claims to have been traveling to Vancouver when he felt the need to get off the train and settle down due to a love of growing things.

Jean's daughter (Geneviève Roberge-Bouchard) comes home from Toronto to reject the farm once and for all, asking her dad for a down payment for a city condo in which to start her fashion label. There's an evil mayor (Guertin himself) more than willing to buy him out and sell out the town, neighbours who would sort of love to help but can't, and the local restaurant owner (Emma Ferrante), whose love for Jean has found an impenetrable barrier in his complete obliviousness.

Then, there's an ice storm, which shuts down all the automatic milking machines in town, threatening everyone's herds with a deadly mastitis infection if they don't get milked in time. This includes Caramel (also Guertin), Jean's favourite heifer, born the day of his wife's death.

VACHES director Dillon Orr does a lot with a little. The five-person cast belts with verve, a particular highlight being Roberge-Bouchard's range as a soprano, and throws everything into broad(side of a barn) acting choices that transcend language. Transitioning quickly between main characters and random townspeople and henchmen, they also fluidly perform a score by Brian St. Pierre that ranges from Shania Twain to Cabaret in its influences, most songs having catchy hooks that will stick a while. Guertin digs into his role as a conman who's decidedly not on the side of the little guy, practically rubbing his hands in anticipation of undercutting Jean and then paving his family's legacy.

The set (Andrée-Ève Archambault) consists of three doors and a stylized barn frame on a central platform, the doors playing everything from the café entrance to the deed to Jean's farm. The ramp in the middle of the platform is used especially well for humour in the scenes post-ice-storm, as the actors put booties on their feet that act like curling sliders, slipping down the ramp in a way that's just controlled enough to prevent alarm. Costumes by Isabelle Bélisle efficiently differentiate between the multiple characters each actor plays.

If your French is good enough for school but a little rusty (like this reviewer's), there are surtitles up on both sides of the stage, which also translate the pre-show announcements. Part of the joy of the surtitles is, if your French is good enough, seeing the subtle to unsubtle difference between the English and the French lyrics, as an effort has been made to rhyme in both. This is a difficult thing to do, and kudos to translator Natalie Feheregyhazi for a very respectable job. For added fun, you can rent AR glasses by handing over a piece of ID, which superimpose the surtitles over the acting without you having to move your head. The technology mostly worked very smoothly; while it created a small feeling of distance from the actors, it also allowed me to see what was happening without distractions.

VACHES is full of small, clever touches, whether it's the giant printed-out grilled cheeses held by the cast (the café is famous for them, apparently), or the recurrent appearances of a slickly bewigged newscaster who would clearly rather be reporting on what's happening in Montreal than small-town Casselman, and who may be part chicken. In particular, the elegant and hilarious solution used in playing the cows is a visual treat.

VACHES doesn't take itself seriously in the slightest, which is part of its goofy charm, but also part of why it only works up to a certain point. It wants us to have a good time so badly that it really doesn't sit in any moment that might have greater emotional value, rendering its characters essentially cartoons that we don't care about much, outside of their relevance to the plot. Even Jean's late wife's tragic death is played for laughs. The closest the show gets to acknowledging real emotion is in what happens to the title characters, but at that point we're so primed to take everything as a joke that we don't know whether to laugh or cry.

The other issue with VACHES is the last 20 minutes, which takes the goofiness and coincidences and dials them up to 11, going as completely off the rails as Chris did when he got off the train in Casselman. It's as if the writers wrote themselves into a corner and decided on a...

Wait for it...

Deus Ex Vachina.

Instead of the overcomplicated, nonsensical ending, the show would be better served with the simplicity of the conclusion we know is coming, or to use one of the foreshadowed threads from the first act that wind up getting cut. As a 90-minute, one-act show, it might be more, shall we say, bull-eivable.

However, when VACHES works, it's super fun. The songs, cast, and energy are enough to leave you with a smile.

And if you're thinking too hard about the plot? Then I'd encourage you to follow the age-old advice of Bart Simpson: "Don't have a cow, man."

Photo of the cast of VACHES by Marianne Duval



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Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbi... (read more about this author)


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