Written, Designed, Directed and Performed by Robert Lepage
An Ex Machina Production presented by Canadian Stage
April 7-16, 2017
A giant black box opens up to become a large doll-house populated by miniature toy figures of people and props from a middle-class apartment complex at 887 Murray Avenue, Quebec City. Its windows are like small screens lit up with video of animated figures representing the apartment occupants, a veritable gallery of diverse beings, tawdry or noble, idiosyncratic or conservative, lusty or worn-out. This obvious nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window is not meant to portend a murder-mystery. The cross-sections of class and language (French and English) are more in the mode of Michel Tremblay, and yet the entire enterprise is overwhelmingly a Robert Lepage creation. As writer, director, performer, and collaborative designer, he is a virtuoso theatre auteur with his unique signature. His stage imagery, exhibiting a mastery of several technologies, is supreme. And what unforgettable images in shifting perspectives, as the doll-house opens up to reveal various sections of the complex and represent other locales, becoming bedroom, kitchen, library, a 60s diner, a television set, Quebec’s Parc des Braves, an animated board game, or a route for Charles de Gaulle on his famous (or infamous) visit to Quebec during the heyday of fervent French-Canadian nationalism. Deploying computer imagery and technology, shadow puppetry, and filmic techniques and lighting (implemented by a wonderful creative team too numerous to name individually), Lepage is a returning wizard of stunning visual effects, as when a bunk bed transforms into a theatre, or when a screen filled with baffling electronic rays and shapes become an image of a grandmother’s defective brain synapses caused by Alzheimer’s or when a close-up of a soldier’s gleaming boots dramatize a boy’s vivid memory of his fear while running his paper route during the FLQ crisis. The boy is, of course, Lepage himself, and his play is a memory play about unreliable or unstable memory as it attempts to deal with themes of identity and legacy, historical as well as autobiographical.
887 is, in effect, Lepage’s “memory palace,” that is toured in this 125-minute show (without intermission). Premiered in 2015 as an offshoot of the Pan Am Games, where it received rave reviews and then toured successfully to Europe and New York City, 887 has a deeper story than many of Lepage’s more recent stage enterprises, and one with distinctive historical, cultural, socio-political, and autobiographical strands that are skilfully interwoven into a fabric rich with motifs of identity and legacy, memory and feeling. He is the sole life-size human figure on stage, and everything is seen through his eyes as he begins “a dive into the waters” of his past, dropping the liquid image for the most part, but stirring up many things. He is the only speaker on stage, even when he narrates anecdotes about Fred, his theatre school chum, who unexpectedly pays him a visit or two. Fred writes obituaries (“cold cuts”) for Radio Canada, and Lepage is eager to read what his friend will say of him when he passes. His reaction is one of priceless, wounded narcissism, especially as Lepage is the only one on stage, speaking as he does to an invisible Fred, either in person or on the phone.
He uses a nice frame for his story, presenting his own power of memorization as a defective one because he confesses to being unable to memorize Michele Lalonde’s powerful political poem “Speak White” for his oral presentation at the 40th anniversary of Montreal’s “La Nuit de poesie.” This poem, of course, makes it eminently clear that one of the strongest subjects and provocations is Quebec nationalism, for Lalonde’s poem, like the province’s official motto (“Je me souviens”), takes relentless hold of his tribal consciousness. So, Lepage represents himself as a victim of short term memory loss, unable to recall his own cell phone number yet able to remember the family phone number at 887 Murray Avenue, where his family lived between 1960 and 1970.
His own father comes across as his personal hero—someone handsome, athletic, an inveterate smoker, war veteran, humiliated by circumstance to earning a living as a taxi-driver, often lost in his own thoughts in his cab where he smokes or listens to music from American radio stations. His siblings, mother, and paternal grandmother are mentioned, even highlighted for brief moments, and it does seem that his monologue wanders more than it should. Certainly, much of his text is entertainingly comic, as he provides thumbnail sketches of his neighbours in the apartment building: a Catholic Irish family with a mother who is an obsessive-compulsive; a man who lives with his mother (once a piano teacher); a high school teacher of French, with family in Haiti; a couple with a Great Dame named Hamlet; a young Elvis impersonator who would become a pop star; a chartered accountant married to an English flower child who would become a waitress at the Chateau Frontenac. To be candid, Ronnie Burkett would have made something much more vivid with his puppets than Lepage does with the miniature animated videos. But the true subject is not these “supporting” players. They are merely secondary or tertiary details in a narrative really about Lepage and his various anomalies.
With his great charm and narrative skill, Lepage negotiates the past, commemorating his father who sympathized with the aims of the violent FLQ but not their tactics, recalling the humiliations of colonial Quebec, especially after the Battle on the Plains of Abraham. He doesn’t miss his opportunity to explain the significance of the name “Murray,” informing us that it derives from the name of General Wolfe’s second-in-command and later Canada’s first Governor-General. While much of what he tells us does feel like an illustrated lecture, there is no questioning Lepage’s general talent. There is a lot to be remembered by a Quebecois, which Lepage certainly is, though his international celebrity and his warm reception by English-Canadians do not override his deep feeling of anger about how his people have been dehumanized or denatured by English imperialism. “Speak White” brings that anger to the fore, as Lepage delivers a phenomenally potent recitation in a thrilling dramatic climax. The only other time I felt so moved by a French-Canadian recitation was when the great, late Denise Pelletier recited “La Marseillaise” as Sarah Bernhardt.
Finally, Lepage morphs into his own sad, lonely father, a man humiliated by the past, and grief-stricken by his mother’s death. What Lepage remembers is exactly what a son is supposed to remember of his beloved father, whose silence speaks volumes in the son’s remembrances. And because Lepage is a Quebecker, the remembrances have potent cultural and historical edges. It is these edges that will probably linger longer in an audience’s memory than the ample technical wizardry.