— Production photo
Using a sports analogy to praise the latest offering from Robert Lepage will seem odd to some theatregoers, but watching the ingenuity and versatility of Lepage for his new one-man extravaganza of stagecraft, commentary, poignancy, history and poised performance, 887, reminded me of the feeling of awe that arises whenever one watches even a few minutes of athletic performance by the new reigning superstar of the NBA, Seth Curry.
For those arts types who have no interest in sports, Curry is a lithe, seemingly carefree young man who, while chomping on his plastic mouthguard and grinning a lot, has suddenly eclipsed the brawnish superman LeBron James and the alluringly egocentric but fading Kobe Bryant as the most talented basketball player in the world. Curry can do everything with apparent ease, so the whole time you’re watching his team clobber the opposition it’s akin to watching a magician.
How does he DO that?
How does Robert Lepage DO it?
How can Lepage repeatedly appear to be so glaringly superior as a theatrical artist? Lepage sets the bar so high for himself it makes the efforts of others seem pedestrian, even laughable. He is in a league of his own. Forget that smart astronaut with a moustache and the Bowie song. Or Joni Mitchell. Or Gretzky. About the only Canadian who measures up to Lepage for originality that can be universally admired is Leonard Cohen.
Just as Curry can humiliate opponents with his quickness, his intelligence, his guile and his audacity, the multiplicity of Lepage’s genius is an exhilarating barrage that makes one giggle or want to holler hooray. Having attained international recognition with his work for opera, film, Cirque du Soleil, etc., Lepage can now muster a crew of eight technical staff to assist in generating a delightfully intricate interplay of lighting, music and gadgetry, constantly altering the perspective of the viewer.
Unlike the over-ballyhooed train wreck of ‘new media’ over artistry, Helen Lawrence, clumsily staged by SFU darling Stan Douglas and screenwriter Chris Haddock, Lepage’s integration of new technology is always subservient to his storytelling.
Appropriately, the new theatre piece called 887 is formally described as a new creation, rather than a play. It’s social commentary. It’s technical wizardry. It’s mesmerizing mastery of narration. And it makes us feel as well as think and marvel.
887 is an intimate tribute to Lepage’s family roots with humour, anger and grace, while raising his voice only twice. It doubles as a sublime, personal reflection about the necessity of dignity for Quebec.
Ostensibly, 887 is an investigation of memory. That’s the entry point. We learn that Lepage can still remember his family’s first phone number, but he forgets lots of other things. So how does the mind work? This pseudo-scientific premise is soon jettisoned.
His working class family in Quebec City lived at 887 Murray Street, not far from the Plains of Abraham. Hence the title. The street was named for Brigadier-General James Murray who second-guessed his young commander General James Wolfe and became the military commander of Quebec City after it fell to the British.
With an intricate, revolving set, Lepage gives us a guided tour of the apartment building in which he was raised, sharing a bedroom with two sisters. His father was a handsome but illiterate taxi driver, a man of few words. For a while, it’s a bit like a Michel Tremblay novel, affectionate and nostalgic.
But the ever-transforming narrative is equally sociological. We get the FLQ crisis. We get the national flag debate. We get the history of the term ‘Speak White’ in keeping with Lepage nervously preparing for a public recitation of the poem called ‘Speak White’ that was composed by Quebec’s Michèle Lalonde in 1968.
Directed at English Canada as an angry battle cry for Quebecois cultural sovereignty, Lepage’s full recitation of ‘Speak White’ in 887 could have served as the climax of this multi-faceted private/public memory tour, but instead we enter his father’s cab for a meditative, mournful cigarette…
Since 1978, the license plates in Quebec, like the Quebec coat of arms since 1939, have carried the motto, “Je me souviens.” I remember. The memories go back to New France and Brigadier-General Murray versus Montcalm. This self-awareness of Quebeckers as a conquered people is vividly evoked by Lepage.
There’s an episode in which he recalls being a naïve schoolboy taking over his brother’s paper route and being forced to empty his papers onto the road at gunpoint to prove to the police that he was not a terrorist during the imposition of the War Measures Act. Ideally, a film version of 887 could be made for distribution to all Canadian schools.
I Remember/Je me souviens could have been the title; but it’s the fate of Lepage’s father that proves to be the most beguiling aspect of the constantly shifting narrative. The personal is political, etc. We are so intrigued by the cleverness and aplomb of Lepage’s complex performance and we are so entertained by the intricate, shape-shifting of the set that the emotional impact of the piece percolates and expands after we have left the theatre.
These are just the broad strokes of an unforgettable, full evening of stagecraft that is not to be missed.
Lepage opened the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre in 2010 with his Blue Dragon/Le Dragon Bleu, then returned for Far Side of the Moon in 2012. Now, as part of SFU’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations, SFU has hosted the Canadian premiere of 887.
Wake up, UBC, and smell the art.