“One donut short of a dozen.”
Robert Lepage enters the stage with the houselights up and casually begins talking to the audience as if to remind us where the exits are. But instead starts dispassionately talking about memory, its peculiarities of long and short-term recollections, thoughts that linger for a lifetime and those that are lost as quickly as they happen. He shares his pride in remembering his childhood phone number but unconvincingly blames technology for not knowing his current phone number. As casually as if brushing lint off of one’s shoulder, his childhood number is printed out on the small screen behind him as houselights dim and understated magic begins.
“887” takes its name from something remembered, Lepage’s childhood home address on Avenue Murray in Quebec City and is the departure point for for an autobiography and one-man show for this famed director, actor, playwright, production designer and would-be magician . The motivation for his interest in memory emerges when as an actor he is given the task to recite from memory Michèle Lalonde’s social-political poem “Speak White.” As much as he tries there is no order to it in his mind, nothing sequentially tangible, so he creates a memory palace—a mnemonic technique where you associate different lines of a text with something as quintessential as the rooms of your house.
His memory palace, the apartment building of 877 Avenue Murray, becomes a true-to-scale model standing nearly seven feet tall thanks to Lepage’s technical production company, Ex Machina. This large dollhouse-like apartment building hosts the memories of his family and neighbors, and the quirky traits that distinguished one from the other. Each flat is a character, each story varied, taking his personal history into a social commentary and history lesson of Quebec during the late 1960s, which is what Lalonde’s hard-hitting poem on classism and racism is also about–a poem for that era. Yet, how these vignettes are created through apartment windows is the real genius of this performance with views into each of these households being a sophisticated overlay of digital projection, soft lighting, stop-action puppetry and plastic dolls, all in miniature. The result solicits mystique and fascination, and feelings of endearment for each of the tiny lives and peephole characters.
The mobile cube shaped complex building lends itself to be physically turned and opened by Lepage, changing from the past into present, from miniature into a tasteful life-size apartment kitchen, and from memory into obsession with his mortality and how a radio obituary might not represent him in the light he would like to be seen. On the phone or sipping a beer he consults a colleague who he hopes will help him with his retention dilemma before returning back to his childhood and his Taxi driver father who sat smoking in his parked car in the driveway as a refuge to contemplate a life he might have had.
Humor and dry wit abounds as conversations and situations flip between English and French with English subtitles, past and present, and short-term and long-term experiences. Pacing is slow, with an overriding melancholy that drags even as it logically meanders. The piece is “One donut short of a dozen”, as Lepage offers when talking about memory and would ultimately work more effectively in an intimate venue. “887” is also a sharp contrast to his other productions that tend to move at a faster rhythmic clip. The dry slow aspect of this West Coast Première lugs longer than needed and works against its meticulous visuals and the ending that explodes with his passionate recitation of “Speak White”, the racist insult used by English-speaking Canadians against those who speak other languages in public, especially French Canadians. The poem cites British and American references such as Shakespeare, Keats, the Thames, the Potomac and Wall Street, as symbols of linguistic oppression, making her poem extremely relevant for today’s America.
David E. Moreno