“Is it a small town, or a big village?,” a runaway farmhand, Chris, asks early in Vaches: The Musical, a new French-language play from Créations in Vivo productions by Stéphane Guertin and Olivier Nadon based (very loosely) on a true story.
“I think you’re overthinking things,” replies a local dairy farmer, Jean. It’s a familiar tone to take about a small town: it may seem quaint, even novel, to an outsider, but for those who live there, the place and all its particularities are just a given.
They are talking about Casselman, a farming region outside Ottawa where Chris has ended up after jumping (or falling) from a train. Casselman is an easily overlooked place (as someone who lived in Ottawa, and whose father grew up a few villages over, even I’ve never been), but here, it takes the spotlight. A cheerful opening number lists the town’s merits: it’s 37 minutes from Ottawa; it’s next to a brown river; even the trains go there! There’s a mix of sarcasm and warmth to the song, and the show as a whole, that portrays the town’s drawbacks as part of its appeal.
While the play speaks to an ultra-specific demographic, that of rural Franco-Ontarians, the plot reflects issues farmers face across Canada. Since his wife passed away in a car accident, Jean has had to shoulder all the farm work, and is getting dangerously close to burnout. But his daughter has wide-eyed dreams of starting a fashion business in Toronto, so he resigns himself to selling the ancestral farm to help her. Julie is sweet and childlike with her father, but surprisingly manipulative and callous to others: to Chris, who is crashing at her father’s farm, she describes Jean as a cow she plans on milking dry. As Julie (and additional side characters), Geneviève Roberge-Bouchard deftly switches between emotions and characters, showing off at the same time an impressive vocal range. After a particularly room-shaking note, she turns to the audience, waiting for applause (which she enthusiastically received the night I attended).
While Julie is eager to leave Casselman behind, Jean wants to nurture his community, and to preserve agricultural traditions specific to the region (what those are aren’t clear, but we take his word for it). But none of his neighbours are willing to buy the farm from him: they are all struggling as well, and eager to sell off their own lands and retire. At one point Jean even considers a deal brokered by the comically greedy town mayor, who’s been selling plots of land off to the highest international bidders.
But before such a rotten deal can be made, the region is battered by a historic ice storm that leaves the locals without power for weeks, and the self-sacrificing Jean neglects his cows to cart his generator from neighbour to neighbour. It is slowly revealed that at the heart of the show is the resilient community, rather than individual characters,. In one of the snow’s more successful recurring bits, a Montreal-based newscaster in a blue powdered wig surrounded by clucking castmates (barnyard jokes run rampant) gives updates on the storm, with local portions chirped in by another avian? cast member.
If this all sounds a bit chaotic, know that the show is intentionally stuffed. There are numerous — occasionally convoluted — plot lines, countless props flying around the stage, and gags galore. There are as many bits that feel inspired (like the cows, which are performed by the cast bent over with their hands between their legs as udders) as ones that are distracting (for instance the sets designed by Andrée-Ève Archambault, which feature removable doors meant to signal different locations and which the actors occasionally fumbled to place).
But it’s hard to stay mad at a play that refuses to take itself seriously, and which boasts an excellent cast (largely from the Ottawa region) that seems to be having a ball. Even scenes that might normally yield to sentimentality are played for laughs: one of the funniest songs of the show is Jean recounting the night his wife died. The play’s most affecting scene, in which Jean has to put down his beloved cows, who have developed an incurable infection, features a darkly funny rendition of the classic French-Canadian children’s song, “Un Bon Chocolat Chaud” (a ditty about a farmer who can’t seem to milk a cow). The joke is deeply specific to the region, and it may be missed by non-French speakers, since the surtitles can’t quite communicate the double meaning of “tirer,” which means both “to milk” and “to shoot.”
Despite the show’s cultural specificity, the tone is approachable, and many jokes swing so wide they could be wordless and you’d still laugh. The play’s irony might occasionally keep its audience at a distance, but as a celebration of Casselman’s wacky warmth, the show revels in an infectious, ragtag charm.
Vaches: The Musical ran through May 13 at the Berkeley Street Theatre. More information is available here.
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