When: 16 Feb – 18 March 2018
Where: The Peacock, Gluttony
How much: $25-$55; see Fringe website for price details
You’ve never attended church service like this. Welcome to Tabarnak, where the hymns are high-energy rock operas, the congregation croons and careens across the stage, and the pews become props in a playful circus romp. French-Canadian troupe Cirque Alfonse literally turn the solemn dignity of a church setting upside-down, making the sacred into the profane and the serious into silliness. The show’s tongue-in-cheek attitude can perhaps be best summed up by the image of a pants-less man sitting on a pew drinking wine and holding a baguette – at once a teasing caricature of French culture and a transgression of ‘proper’ church behaviour.
Most of the acrobatic acts are fairly standard circus fare, but creative twists make them more engaging. Incense burners are piously carried onto the stage, only to be swung around dextrously in a show of skill; whips crack as men perform stunts in cheeky tight white jocks. Some tricks were executed a bit shakily, the performers seeming less than sure-footed, but overall the stunts were landed well and the few wobbly moments didn’t detract – after all, what is a circus stunt without a little bit of nail-biting tension?
As one of the strongest aspects of the show, the music is worth a special mention. Church bells and mock prayers give way to energetic and colourful folk-rock music performed live on stage. The stately tunes of the church organ are transformed into psychedelic melodies more reminiscent of The Doors than the Dies irae. The performers have strong voices and use them with gusto – despite the lyrics being in French, the audience couldn’t help but bop along with the raucous tunes.
A ‘mock baptism’ skit is one of the show’s funniest parodies of Christianity. Three sweaty, shirtless men use clever slapstick to highlight the absurdity of dunking grown adults underwater as a religious ritual, spitting out mouthfuls of ‘holy water’ and making lewd jokes about ‘lubrication’. It’s worth mentioning that less orthodox spiritual practices aren’t safe from satire either. A particularly funny moment has the ‘priest’ read out mock nonsense horoscopes, each one becoming more absurd (I’m not sure when ‘wombat’ became a star sign, but I’m a fan of it).
For a show named after the French-Quebec slang equivalent of f**k, however, Tabarnak keeps everything surprisingly PG. Short of a few sly innuendoes, the show is decidedly family-friendly, so don’t be nervous about bringing your kids. It stays shy of becoming outrageously bawdy or offensive, and instead aims for gentle ribbing and silliness. It may be profane, but it’s mostly playful rather than perverse.
In light of this, Tabarnak isn’t afraid to occasionally indulge in the undeniable beauty of its church imagery, too. A beautiful routine of human pyramids sees the performers take on the architectural, stylised poses of Byzantine paintings. With the performers silhouetted against the lights and stained glass windows, and the music taking on a more poetic tone, the moment reminds us that there is value in our religious heritage, too.
Despite a few dips in energy and some slower moments, Tabarnak is an enjoyably wacky circus that will entertain you if you like your acrobatics with a rocking soundtrack and a helping of social satire.
— Tamika Glouftsis