Robert LePage's lyrical 887 intertwines intimate reverie with national agony

At large in the Memory Palace

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To get over this blockage, he tries a classic mnemonic technique: the Memory Palace. When trying to memorize a sequence of data, you can visualize a familiar locale and then "hang" each subset of your target text in some particular "niches" of your imagined scene. The method works because our long-term bedrock memories are so much more durable than our short-term data retention. This mismatch spurs LaPage to an extended meditation on the nature of memory itself.

Childhood landscapes work best as memory palaces, so he homes in on # 887 Avenue Murray, the six family flat block where he grew up. And that's where we zoom out from a straight-up discursive TED-talk style lecture format to something far fancier -- an eight-foot tall "dolls house" model of the whole apartment building, mounted on a revolving stage. Each window is fitted with its own little projection screen. The outside walls slide up and down like shoji screens to reveal interior dioramas.

LaPage stalks around the whole ensemble like a gigantic, ghostly voyeur evoking vignettes from his own past. Now and then he probes into the model with his iPhone camera to highlight particular features or episodes, which are projected onto background screens. Models of other locales are trundled onto the stage as needed and similarly probed. The hinged sides of the 887 model open out like the wings of a stage magician's false-bottomed box to provide more human-scaled interiors -- a diner, a taxi cab, his home kitchen -- for LaPage to interact with imaginary interlocutors.

Just the sort of technical gee-whizzery one might expect from a theatrical wizard who's directed everything from Wagner operas to Cirque du Soleil. But the fancy stagecraft in 887 is consistently subservient to the story itself, rather than invoked just for its own sake. Much of the script is in rhyming pentameter couplets, quite fluently translated by Louisa Blair but no doubt even more eloquent in the original French (which can be seen at SFU on February 21st).

LaPage slides easily between iambic declamation and discursive prosody. And, attuned as he is to all the pathos and passion of the Quebec liberation struggle, he's also alert to its paradoxes and dilemmas. 887 is no polemic, but rather a poetically personal memoir.

In the end, LePage does manage, after all, to commit the Lalonde text to memory, which he recites with such torrential feeling that even Francophone members of the opening night audience found it challenging to catch all of it on the fly. If you're going to see 887 -- which you most emphatically should do -- those of us with less-than-fluent French might do well to have a preliminary look at the English and French texts cross-linked above.

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