Animal: family entertainment in the truest sense

publicity photo for Animal (Cirque Alfonse)

Just hanging out with family and friends (Photo by Benoit Z. Leroux)

I didn’t get what I thought I was in for, but I did get a very good time.

Cirque Alfonse is a humble Québecois company: the acrobats and musicians are all either members of the Carabinier Lépine family or their friends. And Animal is a humble show that riffs — in freewheeling, often surreal ways — on farmyard animals and objects.

The skill level isn’t always dazzling. On the opening night of the company’s short Vancouver run, there were too many mistakes and redos off the top, and some of the numbers are dull. I didn’t need to see Geneviève Morin dancing around in an inflated cow costume, for instance. And the routine in which Julie Carabinier Lépine flips around a pair of sickles left me cold. It’s not like she’s juggling them, she’s just twisting her wrists and we don’t even know if the sickles are sharp.

But — and this is an enormous but — this show is ridiculously charming and there are some truly impressive human-scale skills on display. Once I let go of the idea of Cirque du Soleil-style relentless virtuosity, I realized that I was at an excellent party and I settled in.

There’s an old guy in the show, Alain Carabinier, obviously the patriarch, and, as an old guy, I appreciated his presence. Shortly after entering on a peddle-powered gold tractor, Alain climbs a perch pole that Antoine Carabinier Lépine is balancing on his shoulder. Alain scampers all the way up to the top until he’s level with the Playhouse proscenium. It’s impressive.

And the younger men in the company are as sexy AF — Why not just say it? — muscled and playful, prancing around like ponies. Their balancing routines get increasingly daring as the evening goes on, culminating in a bit in which all the acrobats perform stunts while leaping on and off a mechanical bull. (You read that correctly.) Jonathan Casaubon rides the rocking contraption standing up then leaps into the air, does a complete backflip and lands upright on the thing.

Geneviève Morin shows off a crazy amount of strength and control in a dance-like balancing act she performs with Julie Carabinier Lépine.

And, in my favourite number in the evening, the three younger guys (Antoine, Jonathon, and Jean-Philippe Cuerrier) toss around gigantic cowbells while standing atop metal milk cans. Thanks to the mournful clanging of the bells (Sylvain Lafréniere designed all the props) and composer David Simard’s music, this number casts an exquisitely melancholy spell while the performers display admirable skills.

Underlying all of this, there’s a buoyant bonhomie, an irrepressible sense of shared fun. When Antoine accidentally broke an egg during a juggling routine, he laughed, we laughed, and it was great. Played by an excellent group of onstage musicians, Simard’s score is driving and often varied. Just in case you weren’t completely sure this show is a party, the acrobats all break into a stepdance at one point. And it’s so satisfying to see the acrobats pick up instruments and join the band when necessary. Jean-Philippe on saxophone: yes, my brother!

Animal also has the most charming curtain call you will ever see. I won’t give it away. Go and discover it for yourself; I recommend this show. Just remember: it’s not a highly commercial entertainment; it’s a very personal gift of a good time.

ANIMAL A Cirque Alfonse production directed by Alain Francoeur. Presented by The Cultch and the Vancouver International Children’s Festival. At the Playhouse on Tuesday, September 20. Running at the Playhouse until September 24. Tickets

(If you want to see the trailer, here it is.)

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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