Saturday, February 13, 2016

887 at SFU Woodward's

Robert Lepage is back in residence at SFU Woodward's Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, following earlier visits in 2010 with The Blue Dragon (somewhat misleadingly represented in the program as inaugurating the Wong space--that would have been PuSh's presentation of The Show Must Go On) and in 2012 with Far Side of the Moon. This time he brings his latest solo show, 887, which might be said to be the patrilineal counterpoint to Far Side; like the earlier work, 887 is structured around Lepage's personal memories of growing up in Quebec City, with his father rather than his mother emerging as the main animating force of his nostalgia, and with the politics of the piece both more overt and more local. For 887, we learn near the top of the show, is the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Upper Town that Lepage grew up in, the street having been named after the British general who, after the death of James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, presided over the surrender of the French.

A scale model of the apartment building serves as the central design feature of the piece. We are introduced in turn to each of the eight tenant families, Lepage's discourse on the residents' particularities accompanied by a miniature rear projection video that we glimpse through the corresponding living room window. It's a canny trick, for the act of voyeurism condenses both a general principle of theatrical spectatorship and Lepage's inimitable scenographic mix of the intimate and the industrial. Lepage, who delivers his own curtain speech, may be alone on stage having a conversation with us, but there is an army of unseen hands backstage (and in the tech booth) ensuring that the wonderful bits of stage magic he conjures for us unfold without a hitch--although to his credit, and in what has become something of a signature of the shows in which he performs, Lepage does welcome said technicians out to take a bow at the end of the performance. Then, too, Lepage has always been extremely adept at harnessing technology in ways that eliminate rather than expand the distance between performer and audience. So it is with the smart phone that the actor takes out as part of his curtain speech, a double mnemonic that he brandishes as a reminder for us to turn off our own digital devices but that also stands in for self-agency in the act of remembering that we are wont to cede to someone or something else, be it the software in one's iPhone or the hardware of built monuments to official history. At various moments in the piece Lepage uses his phone to insert himself and his memories back into this history, creating a live selfie feed of himself at his uncle's house during Christmas in the 1950s, or delivering newspapers during the FLQ crisis.

The illuminated model apartment building of Lepage's youth also opens up to reveal the well-appointed kitchen of his current Quebec City condo. Here we glimpse scenes of Lepage conversing with Fred, a former friend from the Conservatoire, whom Lepage has sought out to help him memorize Michèle Lalonde's iconic poem, Speak White, which Lepage has been asked to recite at a special 40th anniversary ceremony. Both the responsibility and the burden of Quebec's national memory as a linguistic minority within English Canada thus becomes the refrain against which Lepage excavates his complicated relationship with his taxi-driving father, a working-class man who fought in World War II and claimed to be a federalist, and who wished his children to go to an English-speaking school. The force of Lepage's indignation for the colonial inferiority he suggests his father was made to internalize is palpable in this work, which especially during the climactic scene during which Lepage forcefully recites Lalonde's poem likewise reads as a response to some of the slights against Lepage's previous work as being too apolitical. At the same time, the collective national memory against which Lepage is juxtaposing his personal family reminiscences--encapsulated in the final scene during which Lepage becomes his father, mourning the death of his own mother in his cab on the night of Pierre Laporte's murder--strikes me as somewhat conveniently frozen in time. As with the weaving of past and present in Lepage's film Le confessionnal (with which 887 has a lot of thematic and imagistic parallels), the retrospective temporality of the piece risks performing its own colonial whitewashing of the narrative of Quebec nationalism, which in the aftermath of Oka, of Parizeau's "argent et le vote ethnique," of recent debates over the niqab is anything but memorially pure.


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