Robert Lepage’s autobiographical 887 is a wonderful reflection on memory

July 17, 2015, Robert Cushman, National Post

If ever a theatre artist earned the right to tell his own story, Lepage has

Robert Lepage describes his new show 887 as a “dive into the waters of my past.” So this production, a contribution to the Pan Am Games’ Panamania, might be said to fit in with the major preoccupations of this festival’s theatrical component: autobiography and water. We may be in at the birth of a new genre: waterbiography perhaps.

I must confess that the watery theme isn’t pursued very far in Lepage’s new piece, though the autobiographical one certainly is. Anyway, it’s wonderful. The line quoted is in the script and it’s delivered by Lepage himself, as are all the other lines. This, though it involves a battalion of co-writers, dramaturgs, composers, designers and assistant directors, is essentially a one-man show. It highlights two Lepage qualities that are often overlooked. One is that he is, unfairly, as great a performer as he is a director. The other is that he can be extremely funny.

Both these aspects are on brilliant display in scenes involving an unseen but still fully realized character named Fred. Fred, it seems, was once Lepage’s fellow student at theatre school: not much of an actor, apparently, but possessed of a marketable speaking voice that secured him rapid and remunerative work in TV and radio. Since then, he’s fallen on hard times but Lepage now needs his help in memorizing a poem that he has agreed to recite in public. He tries leaving messages on Fred’s phone, but it always cuts out just as he’s getting to the point. (This is a refinement of the telephone joke that furnished the most amusing portions of Lepage’s Needles and Opium.) Fred nonetheless turns up in Lepage’s swish apartment, where his host unconsciously but unconscionably patronizes him. We only of course hear Lepage’s half of the conversation, but it’s enough to convey a whole scene, one with a healthy component of self-satire. Later Fred has his revenge. He’s been reduced to working on “cold cuts’’: CBC’s secret library of advance obituaries. He sends Lepage a copy of his own cold cut. Lepage is outraged: this cavalier summary is all that is to be recorded of an award-winning career?

I’m getting ahead of myself. The play is about memory: Lepage’s problems with his designated poem — Speak White by Michele Lalonde — get him thinking about the things we can recall and those we can’t: why, for example, he can remember his childhood telephone number but not his present one. He’s inclined to blame this on the way that new, especially digital, technology has messed with our minds — the Fred jokes are a lighthearted reflection of this — though it’s more likely a universal effect of the aging human condition. But it starts him musing on his own growing-up in a Quebec City apartment block: 887 Murray Avenue, named after General Wolfe’s second-in-command, Canada’s first Governor General: in Quebecois terms, an anti-hero but nonetheless commemorated. The naming of streets and statues is a messy and inconsistent business.

The apartment building itself is represented, playfully and stunningly, by a giant doll’s house, each of its compartments inhabited by tiny shadow-puppets, some of whom pay calls on their neighbours in adjoining boxes. Lepage’s paternal grandmother lived with the family, until Alzheimer’s overcame her. His boyhood encompassed the violent crises of the 1960s; his taxi-driver father approved of the FLQ’s aims but not of their tactics.

I wouldn’t claim that the themes are perfectly coherent; the question of Quebec identity, which seems meant to be central, is raised and dropped to arbitrary effect. Lepage’s père is poignantly evoked, but only in patches. What holds the show together is its sheer theatrical wizardry, as both production and performance. The staging involves video — some of it archival film footage, other bits actually shot as we watch; realistic sets that revolve magically in and out of view; toy cars shooting back and forth across the stage. It’s fearsomely complex, but it unfolds with enchantingly casual assurance, like its creator’s own performance. Its defining moment may be the sight of Lepage himself stepping through his own images. And there’s a monster booby-trap of an irony that must be intentional.

The show’s MacGuffin is Lepage’s inability to memorize a poem; and yet there he is, right before us, word-perfect in a solo script, much of which is actually in verse. (His own, we assume, and English; though there’s probably a French version for other venues.) Besides, he does finally get to recite the Lalonde poem, and he’s word-perfect in that too. Emotion-perfect as well: Speak White is an angry satirical commentary on colonial policy and colonial attitudes, and Lepage delivers it with sizzling wit and coruscating fury.

It does draw together much of what has gone before. It may even have a moral: art makes memory. It proves too that there’s more to Lepage’s performing persona than charm, even though that’s the first thing we notice. And it prompts my own memory. When I first saw Lepage’s work, some 25 years ago, I was prepared for its technical mastery but not for its narrative power or for the extent to which he works through his actors. It now appears that the actor through whom he works best is himself. Miraculously, especially given the subject-matter, the result never seems self-indulgent. If ever a theatre artist earned the right to tell his own story, Lepage has.