The houselights remain up as Robert Lepage wanders onstage to give the audience the requisite spiel regarding electronic devices. But he is a con man, a barker, of the most theatrical and deceptive sort. His cellphone doesn't get turned off, he begins to contemplate its usage and its effect on our ability to remember. That story turns into another shaggy dog tale that unfolds into another and a lecture and some matter-of-fact but spectacular stagecraft. At some point the houselights went down but I couldn't tell you when, we were all too mesmerized, almost hypnotized.
Lepage and his company, Ex Machina, are known for their use of video, technology, and sleight of hand - Peter Gabriel's Secret World tour in 1993 that changed arena touring irrevocably, Needles and Opium, and Cirque du Soleil's Totem that pushed circus into a new realm and introduced Joe Putignano as the disco man - but with 887 the ever-revolving and evolving set becomes a cast of characters. The visuals are stunning and heartfelt, and Lepage seems to take a delight in letting us see how they were created and we marvel at the level of creativity that has conceived the effect.
There are dollhouses that come alive, tours inside the dollhouses (with sense of scale reflecting the emotional tone), a giant soldier, puppets and shadow puppets, a library of wonders, a fully-functioning kitchen and toys that appear to breathe. Even the sections that riff on lectures or power point, come to life with animation, lighting and a shadow that detaches to make Peter Pan appear an amateur. The sense of wonder never flags for an instant and the audience never knows where we will be transported next.
Most telling is that none of the stagecraft is just for show, all of it is tied directly, illustrating concisely, the story that Lepage is telling. the emotions he is conjuring, fully integrated and enhancing. And utterly breathtaking. The set and effects are so powerful that Lepage's contributions appear akin to a master of ceremonies. It is only when he carefully modulates to a crescendo of a finale that one pauses to wonder at how masterfully he has lead us along. He uses mime, multiple characters, subtle costume changes (careful to emphasize his worked-out torso and back), magic tricks and sheer acting skill to create the humble effect of a storyteller relating his struggle with his memory.
But 887 is not just about memory. Lepage explores the Québecois identity, human identity, ego, theatricality, explains the FLQ crisis, interpersonal relationships, the construction of a neighbourhood and personhood, fatherhood, the class struggle, and much more. It sounds like a lot of disparate threads, and it is. It is also too many threads to tie up neatly though the ostensible and roaring climax almost does it. So Lepage does what any sensible magician, if they were capable, would do. He tags on another climax that is so emotionally satisfying that everything is resolved. There is not a dry eye in the house and not a bit of doubt that we have participated in something utterly unique and quite simply extraordinary.
887 continues until Sun, April 16 at the Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front St E. canadianstage.com