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theatre review

A scene from 887, written, directed and performed by Robert Lepage.Courtesy of Panamani

Robert Lepage's amazing new solo play 887, premiering as part of the Pan Am Games's Panamania culture festival, is an occasion for nostalgia. Not just for Lepage, who uses the show to vividly recapture his childhood in 1960s Quebec City. Seeing it took me back, 27 years, to the first Lepage play I ever saw, also at a festival tied to an international sporting event.

That was the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, where a young Lepage graced the Olympic Arts Festival, performing his early solo Vinci. It was a work that opened my eyes (and ears) to the magical possibilities of cutting-edge technology harnessed to pure theatre. But just as impressive was the way he used that gadgetry to tell an intimate and resonant story.

All these years later, I've come to greet each new Lepage creation with a tingle of anticipation, waiting to be wowed by his wizardry once again. And I also know that for him, a world premiere usually means the unveiling of a work-in-progress. So, while 887 is a highly polished production, it's also overlong (two hours without intermission) and calls out for some tightening. But the "Wow" factor is here in abundance, as is the resonant storytelling. This is certainly the actor-director-playwright's most autobiographical work and the first in which he expresses personal feelings about Quebec separatism.

It begins in 2010, when a then-52-year-old Lepage was asked to recite Michèle Lalonde's political poem Speak White for a 40th-anniversary celebration of Montreal's legendary La nuit de la poésie. Finding himself unable to memorize the words, he begins to ruminate on memory and aging. That leads him back to his past, as a boy growing up in a working-class family that lived from 1960 to 1970 in a cramped apartment at 887 Murray Ave.

Cue the first wow moment, when a black box at centrestage opens up to reveal a huge dollhouse replica of the apartment building, each apartment window illuminated with a tiny video of its inhabitants. Lepage, who knows his Hitchcock (remember his 1995 film Le confessionnal?), pays sly homage to Rear Window even as his gossipy anecdotes about the neighbours remind us of vintage Michel Tremblay.

Dollhouses and dolls, scale models and toy cars are repeatedly and cleverly used, evoking the realm of childhood. Lepage's reminiscences focus particularly on his admired father, a hard-working taxi driver struggling to support a wife, four kids and an ailing mother. His son remembers him as a laconic and lonely figure; we're left with a melancholy image of him sitting alone in his cab in the wee hours of the morning, smoking and listening to radio stations across the U.S. border.

Then the black box revolves and we're in the adult Lepage's posh condo on Boulevard Louis-XIV, with a well-stocked library and a stainless-steel kitchen. As he tries to learn Lalonde's poem, he's sidetracked by the revelation that CBC has already prerecorded his obituary for future use. He becomes obsessed with obtaining it and finding out how he, too, will be remembered.

Lepage doesn't stint in showing us his egotistical and irritable sides, but he saves his real anger for the class system that he sees as the original driving force behind the separatist movement. It begins to seethe as he recalls the events leading up to the FLQ crisis in 1970 and (spoiler alert) erupts when he finally gives an incendiary recitation of Speak White.

No mere description could spoil this show, however. Lepage has packed it with so many theatrical and technological tricks that it demands to be seen. He can still make a sophisticated audience feel like small children surprised and delighted by their first magic show. He finds a witty contemporary variant on the magic wand in his smartphone, using it to shoot live video onstage or conjure up Google maps. But he's at his most charming when he resorts to some old-school sight gags, shadow puppetry (albeit with a techno-twist) and physical theatre.

Lepage's company, Ex Machina, is a remarkable machine and the machinists for this project include creative director Steve Blanchet, lighting designer Laurent Routhier, image designer Félix Fradet-Faguy and composer Jean-Sébastien Côté. Their work is as rich and intricate as Lepage's bilingual script, beguiling us at every turn of that revolving stage.

In 1988, Lepage left me both moved and exhilarated. Almost three decades later, he's still doing that. To paraphrase another Canadian genius, Neil Young, long may he run.

887 continues through July 19 as part of the Panamania arts and culture festival (