Review: 887 (Canadian Stage/Ex Machina)

Robert Lepage brings 887 back to Toronto audiences at Canadian Stage

Canadian arts eminence Robert Lepage, notable as a director and designer for decades, has been making new narrative work the last few years. This includes the recent 887, a memory play currently running at Canadian Stage, tracing an early part of Lepage’s history with his family, childhood home, class, and relationship to the FLQ and the Quebec separatists movement.

This piece, 887, feels in some part like a reaction to several highly-publicized failures at attempts to engage with racialized material – ‘I’ll just talk about my childhood!’, he seems to be saying, and surely no one can be upset about that. The work (which is two hours and ten minutes with no interval) hops back and forth in time between childhood and the present day, organizing itself loosely around his experience being asked to recite the Michéle Lalonde poem Speak White at a festival organized to celebrate the 40th anniversary of La Nuit de la poésie. It is a complicated poem, with a complex history, one that champions francophone Canadians and their sense of being treated as an underclass and simultaneously positions this as being the same as chattel slavery. So, there’s that.

As is usual for a Lepage production, the visuals and design are tremendous. Lepage possesses an almost otherworldly sense of magic, as though he has fair folk and giants murmuring to him about their countries; as though there are vast swaths of the universe’s landscape only he and a few others can see. Watching his work unfold on the stage for this production gave me the same shiver of delight as other Lepage productions I’ve seen, almost as though my eyes don’t have enough rods or cones to appreciate everything at once. 887 is gorgeous. This is the exact thing Lepage is tremendously, peerlessly good at.

The plot, the writing – the performance itself, written and directed and designed and performed by Lepage – I did not enjoy. It gave me echoes of Waterworld, the Kevin Costner epic of the mid-90s, in which Costner also wrote and directed and starred and there was no one to tell him no, and it was three hours long and cost the earth and people largely found it dragged on. This was compounded for me by the issue of many digressions creating scenes that were gorgeous to look at didn’t really advance the story very much, or at all, and dragged the overall pacing down to a crawl, a problem a good director could have solved if he weren’t also the playwright and star.

Most of the “humor” in the show was at the expense of crude characterizations of others, notably a friend in addiction recovery, scenes in which Lepage tries (?) to offer the friend some work (??) but it comes with such a face full of ungracious commentary about said friend’s current circumstances that, even in his financial straits, he can no longer bear the humiliation Lepage subjects him to under the guise of humor. He leaves.

Honestly, 887 feels like the emperor has no clothes, honestly, or maybe more like the beautiful room is empty. Lepage created it for the PanAm games, at considerable expense. It has garnered considerable praise in various places. I just…never found my way into what I am sure is a Great Work of Canadian Culture™ (and neither did my guest or most of the people sitting around me, who shifted, sighed, murmured, chatted, and even complained). This was a miss for me, in a big way.

Details:

  • 887 is playing at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St E) until May 12, 2019.
  • Performances run Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm (Fridays at 7:00 pm) with Wednesday matinees at 1:00 pm and weekend matinees at 2:00 pm.
  • Tickets range from $29 to $79 and can be purchased online, over the phone by calling 416 368 3110 or in person at the box office.
  • Run Time: 135 minutes with no intermission.

 

6 thoughts on “Review: 887 (Canadian Stage/Ex Machina)”

  1. Your review of this play from 2017 is very different than the one you just posted. Has the play changed that much?

    1. No, it’s a different reviewer. Wayne quite liked this, and I did not find I shared his enthusiasm for it.

    2. I was the reviewer in 2017. I suspect I’d be much less enthused if I saw it for the first time today, given Lepage’s well-publicized cluelessness and stubbornness around his cultural appropriation in his most recent works (SLAV and KANATA). It puts his earlier work like 887 in a new context and I suspect the problematic aspects of 887 that I was more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on back then, I’d view with with a much more critical eye today.

  2. I saw this back in 2015 during Panam and then saw it again tonight. I really enjoyed it both times and even brought my mom tonight who enjoyed it as well. There was a very large standing ovation tonight so definitely the people in the crowd tonight were very much into the performance.

    I would highly recommend for people to watch this if they get a chance. I really have enjoyed various Lepage plays and projects over the years.

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