Past

The Making of Robert Lepage’s Theatrical Genius

In ‘887’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Robert Lepage shows, ingeniously, how his singular and bewitching grasp of theater came into being.

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When Robert Lepage wondered aloud how he should remember a telephone number, the gentleman behind me at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater growled impatiently, “Write it down.”

This probably wasn’t the kind of audience response the accomplished French Canadian actor, playwright, and director wanted, but it’s a reflection of the kind of intimacy his new show, 887, elicited. Later, when Lepage was mulling what to drink, the same gentleman exclaimed, “Hot water!”

887 refers to the house number on the street in Quebec where the multi award-winning and much-acclaimed Lepage—now 59—grew up, and his two-hour, intermission-less BAM show takes the audience inside that abode while also reflecting on art and legacy.

The art of the possible in theater is the art of this show. The stage, when Lepage initially appears, dressed neutrally and addressing us, is black and empty—but soon appears a human-sized, dollhouse-like model, the apartment building where he and his family lived.

We can see windows lit up and animated figures in the windows—the building’s other residents, including a terrifying dog, a man with a tragic past, and a neighbor who enjoys the attentions of a traveling salesman.

Lepage, continuing as his life’s own narrator, tells us of his parents, especially his father, a taxi driver who worked hard to support his family and who also sought refuge in his taxi—which we see as a little driving model—listening to Nancy Sinatra.

Lepage’s inventive use of mixed media is as impressive as it sounds seductive, with music and sound design by Jean-Sébastien Côté, lighting by Laurent Routhier, and images by Félix Fradet-Faguy. His idea of a memory palace—a way of remembering that uses the mind as a place with rooms where you deposit certain bots of knowledge and memory—is configured beautifully on stage.

The apartment block opens to reveal, Russian doll-like, all kinds of spaces—like the adult Lepage’s apartment now. There are tables on which we watch his recollection of Charles de Gaulle visiting Quebec played out, and for this he uses models of French Canadians, cheering and holding their Tricolores, which he then films using a tiny camera, the images of which are then blown up on the big screen.

The sweep of his life is not total. We spend a lot of time in Lepage’s early years, and his parents’ tempestuous marriage, which is most wittily conveyed as a kind of electronic game, with the family members represented as flashing figures darting from one room to another, as an argument intensifies.

We also hear the story of a revolutionary time in Canadian politics when—during the 1960s—the militant Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) waged a violent campaign in the name of Québec sovereignty. This period of turmoil is sketched alongside the hunt for a local serial killer.

Lepage’s middle years, his growth as an artist, are absent. Perhaps another autobiographical show will be crafted around it. What we see instead is the formation of an artist, and an artistic mind.

In the near-present day, an unseen friend called Fred informs Lepage that he is the subject of a “cold-cut” at the local radio station at which he works: a pre-emptively written obituary. Oh dear. When Lepage listens to this obituary (we do not, bar the muffled squeaks through headphones), he is not happy to hear the author’s emphasis on his most pop culture-themed hits at the expense of the truer, less audience-friendly expressions of his art that he has made.

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The joy of the show is how impromptu Lepage—and his team, who come on to deservedly bow alongside him at the end—performs the show’s art, and how clever that art is. A lovely moment comes when he performs a shadow play that suddenly seems to involve a young girl opposite him, both of them having a pillow fight.

The show ends as it begins at number 887, and his father’s glowing taxi at life size and toy size as it scooters away into the night. The foundation of Lepage’s art, his vision, was found on this street, in this house, full of its strange, animated figures and their emotions and colorful lives. Living here was the foundation of all the quirks of invention we see here, including placing a motorized camera behind a pair of boots to convey the armed guard that once confronted a teenage Lepage on the street.

The intricacy of 887, its visual treasures and tricks and shards of personal revelation, make it both haunting and revelatory—both about Lepage the person and Lepage the artist. Whoever is writing his obituary should definitely see it.

887 is at BAM Harvey Theater until March 26. Book tickets here.