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Review: Robert Lepage’s ‘887’ turns memory into a multimedia masterpiece Special

Posted Apr 8, 2017 by Jeff Cottrill
There are a lot of ways you could categorize Robert Lepage’s spellbinding “887” – magic show? Confessional monologue? History lesson? – and none would be wrong. But only by blending these unlikely elements does it become a masterwork.
Quebec actor and director Robert Lepage revisits his childhood hime in  887   now back at Canadian S...
Quebec actor and director Robert Lepage revisits his childhood hime in "887", now back at Canadian Stage.
Erick Labbé
Canadian Stage has brought 887 back to Toronto “by popular demand” after its highly praised runs in New York, Edinburgh and other cities and festivals, and its triumphant reopening last night was a sign of how blessed our city must be to have this 2015 solo show back, even if it’s just for ten days. Written, directed and performed by Lepage in collaboration with the multimedia artists of his company, Ex Machina, 887 dazzles you with technical flair, but never sacrifices its intimate, nostalgic tone or its overlying themes to do so.
887 is, above all, an autobiographical play about memory. The title refers to the number of the shabby Avenue Murray apartment building in Quebec City where Lepage grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and the veteran actor-director recalls his childhood in a cramped flat with his parents and three siblings, surrounded by the noises of a fighting couple, musicians and other neighbours. He describes the building as a cross-section of Quebec at the time, with it majority Francophones, minority Anglophones and scant immigrants. Lepage tells stories about living with his grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, alongside the political upheaval of the period (separatism, the FLQ crisis, etc.). There’s also a framing story about the time Lepage was asked to recite Michèle Lalonde’s poem “Speak White” at a Montreal event in 2010, but struggled to memorize it.
But all that’s just the content. What make this show memorable are the physical recreations of the past and present by Ex Machina, mostly through a large, dollhouse-like box designed to look like 887 Avenue Murray in the ’60s. At first, you’re impressed merely by the tiny projections of people inside the apartments. But then the box spins around and opens up, turning into Lepage’s present-day condo. Another time, the interior becomes a 1960s deli, where a vandal has rearranged the menu-display letters into separatist messages; later, it’s the bunk bed that Lepage shared with his sister – and then that turns into a shadow theatre. How do the wizards of Ex Machina make all this happen? I don’t know – and I don’t want to know. I’d rather believe it’s magic.
There are more wonderful effects like this. A dolly of old boxes turns around and reveals itself to be a miniature version of Lepage’s childhood apartment, of which he gives a tour through images projected on a screen via his phone camera. Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 visit to Quebec City comes to life on a detailed platform recreation with a toy Lincoln car and a doll of the French president. And Lepage’s confrontation with a policeman during the 1970 implementation of the War Measures Act is particularly cinematic: a moving floor camera captures a view of Lepage, as a preteen paper boy, between two boots as leaves and rain fall from above. Scenes like the latter one take sensory details from Lepage’s memory to make them real and vivid.
You may be so enthralled by the visuals in 887 that you miss the poetry in Lepage’s writing and the thematic connections. (I myself was so into it that I forgot to take notes – hence the lack of direct quotations in this review.) But take away the stage tricks, and this is still a very personal show. Lepage not only tells a lot about his youth and how Quebec’s coming of age affected him, he also isn’t afraid to reveal himself psychologically. He acknowledges his reputation for egotism – contrasting it with the humility of his cab-driver father – and the modern story includes a subplot in which he reads his pre-written CBC obituary and gets enraged at how short it is. Why do theatre artists get so little postmortem attention compared to mediocre TV and film personalities? he laments. (This connects to the memory theme in a subtle way, since theatrical performances tend to live on only in memory, unlike films and recorded music.)
While this is ostensibly a one-man show, Ex Machina’s technical genius is arguably the real star – headed by Steve Blanchet, the company’s creative director. But credit is also due to dramaturg Peder Bjurman, a frequent Lepage collaborator, who weaves and tightens all of Lepage’s anecdotes, memories and tangents into a coherent whole. At two hours without intermission, 887 should feel overlong and indulgent, but Bjurman reigns it in just enough to make the show spectacular without becoming excessive. Image designer Félix Fradet-Faguy and sound designer Jean-Sébastien Côté contribute strongly to its effect as well.
Not many plays amaze me on a level that gives me a strong sense of theatre’s full artistic or technical potential. London Road (which CanStage put on in 2014) was one that did, and every West End or Broadway production I’ve seen has been a technical marvel in some way. 887 is not only a work of complex stage magic, but also a worthy personal and political statement – and both aspects complement each other naturally. If you can see this brief remount, do it. You’ll remember it for a while.
887 runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre, at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto, until April 16.