To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Here, Bryan Schmidt, a PhD candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Theatre Arts and Dance, shares his perspective on Robert Lepage’s 887.
It’s not immediately clear that 887 has started the first time Robert Lepage steps onto the stage: the house lights are still up, audience members are still settling into their seats. He gives us the obligatory admonition to turn off our cell phones, peppering in jokes with a relaxed demeanor, with a locomotion that allows him to effortlessly flit from thought to thought. As he slowly waxes into a series of recollections about growing up in 1960s Québec, the lights dim almost imperceptibly and we seamlessly drift into the renowned auteur’s memoryscape, like slipping into a pleasant daydream.
The unassuming opening, combined with Lepage’s debonair conversational style, gives 887 (created by Lepage and his multidisciplinary company Ex Machina) the initial feel of a pleasant stroll down memory lane. But this autobiographical journey feels less like the 60-year-old auteur is peering at himself in the mirror than struggling to reconcile his own experience of the past with his present-day awareness of the historical moment in which it was enmeshed.
The performance’s fulcrum is contemporary Lepage preparing for a public performance of Michèle Lalonde’s iconic poem “Speak White” at a high-profile gala commemorating the 40th anniversary of La Nuit du la Poésie (The Night of Poetry), a 1970 action on behalf of the Québec sovereignty movement. But the seasoned theater pro has a peculiar problem: he can’t remember the words. While 887—a two-hour one-hander—demonstrates that Lepage has no problem memorizing lines, he realizes that learning “Speak White” cannot simply be done by rote. With poetry, he tells us, you have to feel it from your visceral memory. Thus, 887’s exploration of the past feels not like an indulgent memoir, but a way for Lepage to process Lalonde’s poem, inter it, and grasp for his own right to utter it.
Lepage anchors this exploration of the past with a marvelously gigantified and inventively pliable rotating dollhouse, which effortlessly morphs in location and scale. The set piece first presents a front view of his childhood home in the apartment complex at 887 Murray Street, Québec City. TV monitors placed in the each apartment’s window give the illusion that we can see inside as we meet his motley cast of neighbors. Then Lepage effortlessly spins the set around to reveal the interiors of each apartment, reaching inside to pick out small miniatures of household objects. He then raises his arm and magically pulls down a brick wall edifice like a teacher unfurling a projection screen. Even more surprising, he opens up the set piece and walks through a door you didn’t even know was there. We are suddenly inside a chic, life-sized kitchen interior furnished with high-end appliances. Throughout the show, the set piece allows for a captivating series of reveals that creates a dreamlike atmosphere with a sense of locational vertigo.
Lepage nestles his visceral childhood memories within a fascinating historical moment characterized by the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and the Québec sovereignty movement. One gets the impression that he is interrogating the distance between his current positionality as a world-renowned artist with financial security and international mobility, with his family’s working class roots. He especially reflects on his father, a stoic, hard-working, and humble taxi driver whom Lepage characterizes as the prototypical blue-collar superhero. At times, Lepage even dons his father’s cap and uniform in short, non-speaking scenes that evoke the weariness and solitude he projects onto a man doing his best to serve his family—and doing so under the yoke of political repression to Francophone Canadian families.
It feels almost like Lepage has a sense of guilt over his contemporary distance from these humble beginnings. There is a kind of longing for the subdued pride and grounded labor he attributes to his father, which comes through in subtle ways. For instance, one of the play’s throughlines is Lepage’s contemporary encounter with Fred, an old friend from his days in the theater conservatory. He invites Fred to his home, and then proceeds to nonchalantly rib him about his drinking and financial problems. Fred works at a TV station creating retrospectives of celebrities to play when they die; Lepage pompously demands to see his own and then berates the man when he finds it insufficiently celebratory. One hopes that this does not accurately reflect Lepage’s persona; rather, the storyline feels like a kind of monstrous self-caricature meant to telegraph his worries about success going to his head. It starkly contrasts the quiet humility with which he endows the character of his father and haunts his attempt to memorize “Speak White.” That is, perhaps Lepage’s memorization issues reflect his distance from the social conditions and political concerns required to truly understand the milieu from which the poem emerged. This thought gets reinforced during a visit to his old conservatory, where the teachers remind him that, today, few members of the working class can pursue careers in the theater.
While the bulk of memories explored in 887 seemingly reflect the innocuous concerns of a child, Lepage adds depth by emplotting them within more grave sociopolitical matters. For the most part he addresses the audience directly, shifting between the relaxed, confident affectation of a stand-up comic, the affable authority of a TED Talk lecturer, and the verbal majesty of a poet at a recitation. We hear jovial stories of urban life (paper routes, raucous neighbors, and firecrackers set off in dumpsters), but these get counterposed to stories of growing social unrest in Canada. We learn about Truncheon Sunday, the police crackdown against Francophone protests during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit; about “speaking white” the colloquial Anglophone admonition to Francophone Canadians (borrowed from American slave owners attempting to police the creole language of Black slaves); about the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a separatist paramilitary group responsible for the kidnapping and murder of politicians.
Québec sovereignty is the dominant issue of 887, but at times one wishes Lepage might have more broadly curated how his story intersects with Canadian political questions. In a brief discussion on the history of the Canadian flag, for instance, he points out how the maple leaf signifies the three peoples who make up the Canadian citizenry: Anglophones, Francophones, and First Nation peoples. Yet, while he takes care to outline the colonial relationship between Anglophones and Francophones, First Nation peoples simply do not factor into the discussion. For a show that manages to weave together so many disparate threads, the political struggle Lepage depicts has only two sides—the question of how indigenous peoples have impacted this history never gets explored.
The political investments of 887 are clear but not always outwardly visible. They exist underneath the veneer of Lepage’s somewhat unremarkable neighborhood—just as his childhood home sits on Murray Street, named for the English general who defeated the French in the 18th century. Perhaps this is why the show relies so heavily on dramatic reveals. Seemingly mundane objects flip or open up to expose detailed miniature scenes. Sometimes, with the aid of the video camera on Lepage’s cell phone (which gets projected onto a large screen behind him), he manages to endow the myriad dollhouse figurines that populate the memoryscape with a sense of animacy—a feeling that they do not remain passively frozen in time but mill about the author’s brain like fireflies.
Some of Lepage’s imagistic coups feel tangential to the main narrative, like creative but unsubstantial production feats intended to impress and captivate a paying public. But a few moments manage to triangulate technology, image, and storytelling in unforgettable moments that summon the theater’s greatest powers.
One particular scene stands out: Lepage places his camera on a small toy car, which slowly drives away from him, creating a kind of tracking shot projected onto the back screen. He assumes the character of his 10-year-old self, walking nonchalantly as he delivers newspapers. The toy car comes to rest between a pair of boots, which, projected, suddenly loom large on the screen, creating the sense of an imposing man towering over a little boy. We realize that the young Lepage is being confronted by a soldier during the height of the 1970 October Crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act, a sweeping curtailment of civil liberties enacted in the wake of FLQ violence. The camera trick evokes the sense of terror felt by a child staring down the barrel of a gun, materializing an icon of state violence seemingly out of thin air. Lepage’s cinematic citationality here is neither a technological gimmick nor a longing for filmic verisimilitude. Rather, it creates a profoundly theatrical moment that allows us to place ourselves behind the eyes of a quivering boy caught up in an extraordinary historical tumult, while simultaneously making us aware of the immense power this memory still holds on Lepage some 50 years later.
In the show’s finale, Lepage finally delivers “Speak White” at the anniversary gala. His fiery rendition of the masterful poem reveals that he has not only successfully memorized the work, but also found his own visceral connection to its themes. While the showstopping recitation (which expertly displays all of the artist’s rhetorical powers) could be a fitting end to 887, Lepage instead inserts one final, non-speaking scene in which he reenacts his father sitting in his taxi listening to a French version of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang.” The car’s headlights brighten and brighten to blind the audience, like a deep, uncontrollable, and richly layered memory welling up inside—one you can’t quite explain, but that irrevocably reorients your vision through the prism of the past.