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Written, designed, directed, and performed by Robert Lepage. Until April 16 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East. CanadianStage.com or 416-368-3110.
The experience of watching Robert Lepage’s 887 — an autobiographical performance exploring the instability of memory, legacy, and his childhood in 1960s Quebec City — entrances the audience into a childlike wonder. There are surprising, jaw-dropping visual and technical moments, the logistics of which are seemingly beyond our comprehension — for these 125 minutes, magic is possible. Lepage’s masterful command of storytelling, through his physical performance as well as his theatrical trickery, creates a world that’s enveloping, pulling you from one moment to the next, even as it bounces through time. And much like everyone’s childhood, the depths, complexities, hypocrisies, and beauties of 887 aren’t fully clear until after it’s over.
After premiering in 2015 in the arts and culture programming offshoot of the Pan Am Games, PANAMANIA, to rave reviews, 887 has since toured through Europe and most recently New York City, earning full marks from critics the way through. So upon its return to Toronto for a limited engagement at the Bluma Appel Theatre with Canadian Stage — a run that deserves to be completely full the whole time, by the way — the reverence the audience holds for Lepage rivals the feeling the iconic Canadian artist has for his own father, portrayed in 887 as a “superhero” — good looking, athletic, humble, and a soldier who returned from war to work as a taxi driver in Quebec City to support his wife and four children. Throughout the play, the figure of Lepage’s father (and his death, revealed early on) is a driving force to propel his son’s exploration of how a legacy, identity, and history is made and manipulated by faulty memories, both personally and culturally (using his experiences in the heart of The Quiet Revolution and the Separatist Movement in French Canada). That is to say, it might be a hyperbolic admiration, not completely tied to an objective truth (887 does feel a bit long), but it will undoubtedly be part of the enduring collective memory of this particular piece of theatre.
Using a revolving structure that features a to-scale model of 887 Murray Avenue, the apartment building that Lepage grew up in, and sides that open and close to reveal different minisets of mind-blowing detail (from a 60s diner, to Lepage’s own kitchen, to an oversized array of board games and a TV set that visually shrink the adult Lepage to a fraction of his size), Lepage’s story travels through time, weaving together his attempts to memorize the famous Michèle Lalonde poem “Speak White” for a public performance, an obsession with his pre-recorded Radio-Canada obituary called a “cold cut” and a frosty relationship with a former classmate, life inside Apartment 5 at 887 Murray Avenue, and the history English and French tensions in Canada. One of the more intellectually curious moments comes from Lepage’s portrayal of the vandalism that destroyed a statue of Queen Victoria, and the acknowledgement, or lack thereof, it received in English and French newspapers, or the conflicting idea around Charles de Gaulle as hero or villain after his “Vive le Quebec libre!” statement.
But the truly memorable moments come from Lepage’s intimate reconstructions of his childhood, including a touching shadow puppetry game with the image of his young sister, with whom he shared a bunk bed. Or through replicating his paper route during the FLQ crisis, using a simple pair of boots to recreate the fear and intimidation he felt as a child from the soldiers he passed on his course. The final image, in which Lepage changes in an instant from his child self into the taxi uniform of his father is heartbreaking.
In 887, Lepage turns the apartment complex at 887 Murray Avenue into a cabinet of curiosities, an adult version of a dollhouse with accurate dioramas of the rooms he grew up in, complete with dolls and projections to bring them to life. At the same time, he describes the apartment as his “Mind Palace,” a technique used to ease memorization when our brains feel maxed out to capacity. At any instance, his childhood apartment is either larger than life, or almost pocket-sized. Similarly, Lepage himself is either his adult self or a small child, sitting on his father’s shoulders. 887 represents the permeable barrier that we all hold with our inner children.