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887 a work of astonishing stagecraft

Robert Lepage (Erick Labbé photo)</p>

Robert Lepage (Erick Labbé photo)

Writer-director-performer Robert Lepage's masterful solo show 887 is a memory play, but be assured this is no boring baby-boomer bio bombast. It is a demonstration that, at the age of 61, Lepage maintains his perch on the cutting edge of theatrical innovation.

Technical virtuosity is an aspect of Lepage's Quebec company ExMachina whose mission statement asserts that performing arts should be cross-pollinated with recording arts -- including film, video and mixed media. At times, this splicing can result in breathtakingly detailed artifice, as when Lepage stands beside a two-meter-high miniature of the Quebec City apartment building in which he grew up, complete with high-definition video screens revealing tiny bustling human life through the windows.

At other times, the result is sheer poetry.

It is a deeply personal show. "887" refers to Lepage's address on Murray Avenue, where as a kid he shared a three-bedroom apartment with his parents, his three siblings and a grandmother suffering from dementia. (Lepage's cabbie father refused to put his mother in a care home, though the financial burden proved to be hard.)

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Writer-director-performer Robert Lepage's masterful solo show 887 is a memory play, but be assured this is no boring baby-boomer bio bombast. It is a demonstration that, at the age of 61, Lepage maintains his perch on the cutting edge of theatrical innovation.

Technical virtuosity is an aspect of Lepage's Quebec company ExMachina whose mission statement asserts that performing arts should be cross-pollinated with recording arts — including film, video and mixed media. At times, this splicing can result in breathtakingly detailed artifice, as when Lepage stands beside a two-meter-high miniature of the Quebec City apartment building in which he grew up, complete with high-definition video screens revealing tiny bustling human life through the windows.

At other times, the result is sheer poetry.

It is a deeply personal show. "887" refers to Lepage's address on Murray Avenue, where as a kid he shared a three-bedroom apartment with his parents, his three siblings and a grandmother suffering from dementia. (Lepage's cabbie father refused to put his mother in a care home, though the financial burden proved to be hard.)

The neighborhood happened to be within a cannon shot from the Plains of Abraham, allowing Lepage a sly introduction to some Quebec history that establishes the English domination of the mostly French-speaking province. In fact, the narrative catalyst for the play is Lepage recalling how he came to deliver the reading of Michèle Lalonde's poem Speak White — a denunciation of English hubris towards the French language — at a Montreal cultural event. He had trouble memorizing the poem, which introduces the concept of the "memory palace," a mnemonic device in which items to be memorized are stored in the model of a physical space, say, an apartment building.

In Quebec, he shows, the personal and the political are tightly woven, especially when you are coming of age during the October Crisis of 1970, which saw radical French-Canadian separatists kidnap two high-profile figures, murdering one. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's subsequent invocation of the War Measures Act plays out here with Lepage acting out how, when not quite into his teens, the paperboy Lepage had to empty his carrier bag for a soldier with a rifle aimed at his head.

That kind of trauma leaves a mark on the psyche, despite the fact Lepage's political influences within his family were balanced between a father who leaned federalist and a mother who leaned separatist.

Performed mostly in English, with English surtitles projected on the screen, 887 is a work of astonishing stagecraft. The set is a gorgeous puzzlebox, transforming from apartment exterior to greasy spoon to apartment interior to garage with a seemingly effortless exertion. Beyond that, it's a rare work that explicates French-Canadian estrangement within Canada with clarity, candour and great good humour.

There are a few remaining tickets for the 887 performances Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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