Theaters

A Giant of the Theater Recounts His Childhood in Miniature

In 887, theater artist Robert Lepage recounts his childhood in Quebec City during the escalation of the separatist movement.

Robert Lepage in <em>887</em> (photo by Stephanie Berger)
Robert Lepage in 887 (photo by Stephanie Berger)

In 887, a virtuosic piece of stagecraft created and performed by Robert Lepage, the celebrated theater artist integrates video into scale models of the apartment building where he grew up in order to weave a story that combines the personal and political. The show’s title comes from the address of this building, 887 Murray Avenue in Quebec City, which serves as the primary touchstone for Lepage’s memoiristic ruminations.

Robert Lepage in <em>887</em> (photo by Stephanie Berger)
Robert Lepage in 887 (photo by Stephanie Berger)

His trip down memory lane is initiated by his struggle to remember the text of an important French-Canadian poem for an event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Nuit de la Poésie (or “Night of Poetry”), a famous gathering in Montreal in 1970 that galvanized the separatist spirit of Quebecois political poetry. Lepage has been asked to recite “Speak White” by the Quebecois poet Michèle Lalonde, but for reasons unexplained cannot learn it. The poem’s title refers to the way in which subjugated peoples are ordered to speak in the language of the oppressor; it was used on plantations in the Southern US and later became a slogan designed to shame French Canadians into speaking English. Like Lepage’s play, the poem switches between French and English and illustrates the difficulty of retaining one’s minority linguistic heritage while being forced to adopt the language of an empire.

(graphic by Chrysler Ford)
(graphic by Chrysler Ford)

As Lepage wrestles with memorizing the poem, he turns to an old memory trick. The set itself, a model of 887 Murray Avenue, becomes a “memory palace” — a mnemonic technique in which one imagines segments of a long text placed in various parts of a location one knows from childhood. Lepage takes us on a tour of the apartment building and its surrounding area, delivering vignettes about the neighbors, his father’s efforts to eke out a living as a taxi driver, and the sometimes violent protests of the Quebec separatists nearby. Just like any metropolis, Quebec City is replete with fragments of unnoticed history enshrined in everyday life. Lepage highlights the names of streets, parks, monuments, and buildings, which point to a history often forgotten by those who live and work there.

While we agree that the set design and visual experience of 887 are first-rate, your humble reviewers are of two minds about the narrative. Chrysler finds it self-indulgent and wonders whether anyone less famous than Lepage would have gotten so much funding for such a personal project. Chrysler sees no reason for Lepage’s childhood to constitute the subject of a play, and he thinks that the political background, despite having some useful resonances for today’s America, appears tacked on.

Robert Lepage in <em>887</em> (photo by Stephanie Berger)
Robert Lepage in 887 (photo by Stephanie Berger)

John, on the other hand, finds much that is interesting and moving in this story. Memoir is not short on popularity these days (look at the sales of autobiographies), and part of the interest in the genre stems from the fact that people like to know the personal histories of those whose work they admire. Moreover, in the story of any person’s childhood — famous or not, fictional or real — we can find narratives that help us make sense of our own lives. In John’s opinion, just because Lepage happens to have been successful does not imply that there is nothing to relate to in his stories from his early life — for example, his grandmother’s decline into Alzheimer’s or the brutal fights between the couple across the hall. For John, these stories are handled with sensitivity and intelligence, and are marvelously brought to life by Lepage’s stagecraft and showmanship.

Rather than give a single viewpoint on this topic, we leave it to our readers to see the show and decide for themselves. In any case, US audiences who are not well versed in Canadian history will learn much from Lepage’s show. The bloody revolts of the Quebec Liberation Front and Charles de Gaulle’s rousing cry for an independent Quebec are rarely covered in our history textbooks. And as a visual spectacle, Lepage’s memory palace is of the highest order.

Robert Lepage in <em>887</em> (photo by Stephanie Berger)
Robert Lepage in 887 (photo by Stephanie Berger)

887 continues at the Brooklyn  Academy of Music (651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through March 26.

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