FireWorks Festival: Real-life fame, fortune & fall in the entertaining, heart-felt Belle Darling Klondike Queen

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Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Alumnae Theatre Company (ATC) opens its annual FireWorks Festival of new works with Natalie Frijia’s Belle Darling Klondike Queen, directed by Lori Delorme, with music direction by Anita Beaty—running upstairs in the Studio. Part cabaret, part vaudeville, all heart—this highly entertaining and engaging piece of musical storytelling takes us on vaudeville star Klondike Kate’s (born Kathleen Rockwell) real-life journey of fame, fortune and fall, all set against the backdrop of fading days of the Klondike Gold Rush.

Put on your boots, leave your pick and sing along at the Portland Alaska Yukon Society’s 1931 Sourdough Reunion, featuring headliner—none other than the famous star of vaudeville stage—Klondike Kate (Lindsay Sutherland Boal)! Alumnae Theatre’s Studio Theatre has been transformed into a vaudeville music hall for this real-life tale of the highs and lows of Kate’s storied career in Canada’s North, and dreams of becoming a nation-wide vaudeville impressaria across the U.S.

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Sarah Kaufmann, Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh, Roxhanne Norman & Lindsay Sutherland Boal. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Accompanied by a fine ensemble of multi-talented, multi-tasking actors (Sarah Kaufmann, Roxhanne Norman and Madeleine Keesmaat-Walsh), with piano player Calvin Laveck tickling the ivories, Kate takes us on a whirlwind musical and storytelling tour of her life—from wayward Victorian Catholic schoolgirl (Kathleen), to vaudeville chorus girl (Kitty), to headliner Belle Darling Klondike Queen (Kate), and a near miss as Pantages theatre partner and impressaria.

Kate has no use for being a “lady” in the traditional Victorian sense of the word, and sets off on an adventure of her own making—breaking gender barriers and the rules as she goes. Taking us back to the “good ‘ol days” with song, story and satire, the God’s honest truth is that these meanderings of nostalgia can’t erase the personal and financial risk, danger and heartbreak of those who tried their luck—and put their strength and resolve to the test—searching for gold in those freezing cold Northern mountains. All for fame and fortune.

Sutherland Boal gives a powerhouse performance as the ambitious, fearless Klondike Kate—a role that amply showcases her considerable vocal chops as she belts out rousing music hall tunes and caresses melancholy ballads. Sassy, classy, gutsy and irreverent, Kate turns away from what’s expected of her as a “good Victorian lady” to carve out her own path and live on her own terms. And beneath the seasoned showmanship and razzmatazz of Kate’s vaudeville persona, Sutherland Boal digs deep to reveal the broken-hearted woman who reached for it all only to find her ultimate dream of business partnership taken away. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she soldiers on—the show must go on, after all.

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Sarah Kaufmann. Set design by Teodoro Dragonieri. Costume design by Adriana DeAngelis. Lighting design by Liam Stewart. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

She is well-supported by a stand-out ensemble; changing character on a dime in this fast-paced, alternately slapstick and poignant trip through music hall shenanigans both on and off the stage. Kaufmann is adorably Puck-like in her comic turns as the crafty entrepreneur Sophie, and a lusty young sourdough (a Yukon resident) on the make. Norman performs with a playful glint in her eye—and has an outstanding set of pipes herself—in her saucy turn as Kate’s pal and vaudeville partner Gertie; and the charming and irresistible, but false, Alexander Pantages. And Keesmaat-Walsh brings hilarity and swagger as Kate’s gruff boss Arizona Charlie and an awkward strong woman act, among others.

It’s a real-life adventure of fame, fortune and fall—told with song, story and heart. But you don’t have to believe me; check out the trailer (scroll down on the show page).

Belle Darling Klondike Queen continues in the Alumnae Studio Theatre until November 10; get advance tickets online or by calling 416-364-4170 (ext. 1), or pick up in-person at the box office one hour before curtain time (cash only). There will be a post-show talkback with the director, playwright and cast following the Saturday, November 9 matinée performance.

FireWorks continues its three-week run until November 24, presenting a new show each week: Crystal Wood’s Grief Circus, directed by Paige Foskett (Nov 13-17); and Genevieve Adam’s If the Shoe Fits, directed by Heather Keith (Nov 20-24).

 

 

SummerWorks: A bold, revolutionary experiment in housing & education implodes in the spirited, insightful Rochdale

Rochdale ensemble. Costumes by Tiana Kralj. 

 

GovCon and Theatre@York take us to the turbulent, rebellious times of social change and sky-high dreams in 1969 Toronto as a group of counterculture university students undertake a bold and ambitious new housing and education cooperative model in Rochdale. Written by David Yee; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Jessie Whyte; and choreographed by Brandon Pereira, Rochdale premiered as part of Theatre@York’s 2018/19 season. We come upon an experimental campus in crisis; still under construction, and facing the serious challenges of funding, self-government, housing infrastructure, crashers and bad press. Rochdale had its second SummerWorks performance in The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre last night.

Rumours of Rochdale GM Whitman’s (Leanne Hoffman) death have been greatly exaggerated; and when she returns after a two-month absence, she finds her office in shambles, the place in chaos and her boyfriend Dennis (Dean Bessey) replacing her as GM—plus, her best friend Cryer (Adrienne Ross Ramsingh) didn’t go to her funeral! Dennis and fellow Governing Council (Gov Con) colleagues Suzy (Margarita Valderrama) and Kitten (Julia DeMola) are at a loss as to how to deal with plumbing and electric issues, mounting bills, AWOL contractors, crashers and a dodgy elevator that needs to be sweet talked to work. And reluctant student security and safety officer Gerry (Tomasz Pereira Nunes) doesn’t seem particularly suited to or interested in his job.

Student resident Athena’s (Claudia Hamilton) has a theft to report; she eschews locking her room because they’re supposed to be a cooperative community. Shabby (Carina Salajan) is now the resident nurse after they lost their previous medic. Resident stoner Skye (Sabrina Marangoni) is trying to be helpful, but can’t remember what she needs to tell Whitman. And an Asian student dubbed Mao (Nelvin Law) doesn’t speak English—or does he? Rounding out the situation are slick “suit-minded” UofT student liaison Emmett (Ori Black), who becomes friendly with free love hippie girl Flower (Sophia Gaspar); drug dealer Fitch (Brandon Pereira, multitasking with several roles); and newcomer American Friar (Dustin Hickey).

Amidst preparations for a Vietnam War protest and a rooftop viewing of the moon walk, rebellion brews within. Rochdale’s system of self-government is based on the very model they’ve been howling against—and the Gov Con folks are now viewed as “the man”—placing the administrative/organizational body in jeopardy as discussions of war, classism, capitalism and civil rights turn to a debate on governance models. Viewed from the outside as hippie troublemakers, Rochdale’s public funding is in a precarious position as it finds itself continually defending itself against news stories of drug dealing, motorcycle gangs and overdoses on campus. While striving to live outside of the mainstream, they must still rely on mainstream institutions (government and university) for support—a challenging position, to be sure—and all the bad press isn’t helping their cause. Overwhelmed by the demands of administration, and bogged down by disorganization, this revolutionary experiment eventually implodes.

Joyful and spirited, Rochdale thrums with the hope, energy and struggle of a time of great social and technological change; and this story of experimentation, struggle and heartbreaking frustration is told with humour, insight and authenticity. Great work all around from this ensemble of 2019 York University Theatre grads on this look at Toronto’s counterculture in the late 60s, 50 years later. Stand-outs include Hoffman’s brilliant, poetic and beleaguered Whitman; Hamilton’s fierce Black Panther warrior Athena; Law’s enigmatic, passionate Mao; Marangoni’s loveable stoner Skye; and Ross Ramsingh’s intense, introspective Cryer. And the multitasking actor/choreographer Pereira does an impressive juggling act, going from comic (the silent, hungover Naked Man and the accidental Hare Krishna Harry ), to menacing as the drug dealer Fitch, to savvy revolutionary (Boris) and beacon of hope (Astronaut).

With big shouts to the design team for their evocative work on creating this time, space and vibe: Mona Farahmand (set), Ella Wieckowski (lighting), Tiana Kralj (costume) and Johnathon North (sound).

Rochdale has three more performances in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre, closing on August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it was a packed house last night, so advance booking strongly recommended. For more info on the production and its process, visit the Rochdale 2019 website.

Also, as part of SummerWorks Exchange Day 2, Rochdale will be hosting  MOVING PUBLICS—An In Transit Conversation on August 12; the bus will depart from The Theatre Centre at 3:00 p.m. and participants are asked to do some preparatory reading and RSVP in advance when booking their Exchange Day Pass.

 

 

SummerWorks: Running away to home in the fierce, funny, inspiring, socially aware The Breath Between

Fio Yang. Photo by Saba Akhtar.

 

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks, this year with a journey of belonging and identity as a group of BIPOC, 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth living in a world ravaged by climate change venture out in search of a place where they can feel safe and welcome to be themselves. The fierce, funny, inspiring and socially aware The Breath Between, directed by kumari giles and Julia Hune-Brown, assisted by Jamie Milay, and created by the ensemble, opened last night in The Theatre Centre Incubator.

In a post-apocalyptic world where climate change has destroyed the planet and forced the population to live under protective domes, the queer community gathers to dance and celebrate at Dome Pride. Growing increasingly disillusioned and disappointed about the over-the-top corporate branding and ownership—not to mention the $17 bottled water—and mainstream packaging of the event meant to “normalize” queer culture, a group of young BIPOC and 2LGBTQ women and non-binary youth decide to blow this corporate logo-ridden popsicle stand and search for a better place. Hijacking a spaceship on display at the event, and joined by the chirpy host inspired by their cause, they venture out to explore worlds beyond to find a place where they can feel safe and welcome. The trip brings some twists, turns and revelations as they share and discover themselves.

The bright, energetic and engaging ensemble includes Jericho Allick (mentored by Neema Bickersteth), nevada jane arlow (mentored by Susanna Fournier), Alice Cheng Meiqing (mentored by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), Lyla Sherbin (mentored by Avery Jean Brennan), Fio Yang (mentored by Maddie Bautista), Whitney Nicole Peterkin and Megan Legesse; with additional writing by Taranjot Bamrah, A.C., Daniella Leacock and Claudia Liz. Incorporating music, poetry and monologues, the performers invite us into their individual worlds as they share memories and lived experiences—for better or worse. There is pain, longing and shame—but there is also resilience, ferocity and hope; all peppered with astute and darkly comic acknowledgments of the negative impacts of extreme climate change and the corporate branding of events that were once community-organized, grassroots movements.

While they may leave the Dome feeling like a spaceship full of misfit toys, the group ends up finding community and chosen family—and faces the choice of returning home or continuing their off-world exploration. Nicely book-ended by songs performed by Fio Yang, you may find yourself humming Out in the City as you leave the theatre.

Go where you are welcome—or take space where you like? In the end, home is where your family is, whether biological or chosen, and you can spark the change you want to see.

The Breath Between has three more performances in the Incubator space at The Theatre Centre, closing on August 16; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

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Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.

A hero’s epic journey in the magical, multidisciplinary Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic

Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Animal Den scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

 

Tarragon Theatre presents The Qaggiq Collective’s magical, multidisciplinary hero’s journey Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic. Written by the Iqaluit, Nunavut-based collective, and inspired by the legends of the Inuit hero Kiviuq, the multimedia performance is based on stories remembered and shared by Inuit elder storytellers Miriam Aglukkaq (from Kugaarjuk), Susan Avingaq (from Igloolik), Madeline Ivalu (from Igloolik) and Qaunaq Mikigak (from Kinngait)—passed on in the oral tradition. Directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, Kiviuq Returns is performed entirely in Inuktitut, with no surtitles,* incorporating music, dance, movement, mask and projections—immersing the audience in Inuit culture, community and storytelling.

Starring Natar Ungalaq, Charlotte Qamaniq, Vinnie Karetak (last night, understudy Jerry Laisa stepped in for Karetak), Christine Tootoo, Keenan Carpenter and Avery Keenainak, Kiviuq Returns presents five of the hundreds of stories about the Inuit hero. Three actors share the role of Kiviuq (Ungalaq, Tootoo and Laisa), with role exchanges marked by the passing of Kiviuq’s qajaq (kayak) paddle and headband—representing the sharing of power and knowledge among Inuit communities. The four elders who shared these stories are present via video projection, to round out each of the five tales.

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Qaggiq Collective ensemble—Orphan bullying scene. Costume design by Looee Arreak. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

Comedy turns to tragedy in the story of the Orphan (Keenainak), turned into a seal for her protection from repeated abuse from bullies by her angakkuq (shaman) grandmother (Qamaniq), who is heartbroken over having to do this. Only Kiviuq (Ungalaq) is spared from retribution while he’s out hunting in his qajaq with the bullies, as he had tried to intervene and stop the bullying. Lost and adrift, his hero’s journey begins.

From the push/pull dynamic of Kiviuq’s (Tootoo) desire to wed a Fox Woman (Keenainak) who just longs to be free (song written by Avery Keenainak and Abraham Etak), to his hilariously bawdy encounter with a den of lusty animals (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Ungalaq), to a brush with death when he’s (Laisa) captured by the fearful Bee Woman (Qamaniq), Kiviuq is present and connected to his environment, and the animals and spirit guides that come to assist him. Nicely bookending the five stories, Ungalaq returns to play Kiviuq once more at the end of his journey, where he must stay behind as his Goose Wife (Keenainak) and goslings (Carpenter, Laisa, Qamaniq and Tootoo) fly south and he transforms out of human form to become part of the landscape.

Woven into the Kiviuq stories are a Woman’s Dance; bringing to mind the serious mental health issues faced by our Indigenous population, the woman struggles with a deep internal conflict, eventually overcoming it. And the beautiful Sea Woman Poem (written in English by Taqralik Partridge and translated into Inuktitut by Looee Arreak), featuring Tootoo leading the ensemble. Expressing deep love and respect for the water, the poem despairs at the careless and dangerous environmental damage done by modern-day industry; the movements accompanying the words rippling through each performer. And there’s a song (sound design by Chris Coleman), repeated during each Kiviuq exchange; hypnotic and relaxing, like a lullaby wrapping you in the comfort and safety of home—it stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre.

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Fox elder story. Projection design by Jamie Griffiths. Photo by Jamie Griffiths.

The storytelling is playful, poignant and engaging—having you laughing one minute and breaking your heart the next. The adventure, the shifting landscapes (projection design by Jamie Griffiths), and cast of human, animal and spirit characters keep you on your toes as you let the Inuktitut language wash over you. It’s that ‘kid at story time’ kind of feeling. And the easy-going atmosphere of the relaxed performance format makes for an intimate, enjoyable experience at the theatre. A story for all ages, it’s a welcoming, open door feeling, acknowledging the young and the elders as crucial members of the community.

Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic is in its final week in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, closing on January 27; get advance tickets online or contact the box office at 416-531-1827. Last night’s house was packed, so advance booking or extra early arrival at the theatre are strongly recommended.

*The production provides a play guide, available for viewing and download online, and in the printed programs. It is recommended that you review the guide before and after the show, as well as reference it during (lights are brought up during scene changes) to aid in a deeper understanding of the performance.

 

Inside the brilliant mind of the man behind the message, silenced by stroke in the mercurial, theatrical, moving The Message

R.H. Thomson. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Tarragon Theatre takes us into the brilliant, lighting-fast mind of professor turned internationally hailed pop star prophet Marshall McLuhan with its mercurial, theatrical and moving world premiere of Jason Sherman’s The Message, directed by Richard Rose, with assistant director Taryn Jorgenson. Silenced by a stroke as he struggles to reconcile his life’s work communicating ideas and warnings about the impact of our modern world on our bodies and souls, McLuhan’s mind replays the events, ideas and memories of those closest to him.

The pre-show soundtrack (sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne) takes us back in time, with snatches of Coke commercial jingles and beloved TV theme songs from the 60s, among others; then the first scene throws us into darkness—forcing us to temporarily abandon our sight and use our ears. Marshall McLuhan (R. H. Thomson) has had a stroke; the event interrupting his work on his latest, and possibly last, epic tome—a  600-page manuscript already running well behind deadline. And while his physical and cognitive functions gradually return, he’s left unable to speak.

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Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & R.H. Thomson. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

We circle around McLuhan’s mind as snatches of memory, conversations and ideas bubble to the surface. There are raucous pop culture connections with TV (Peter Hutt, in hilariously crass turns as Feigen and Klein) and ad men (Patrick McManus as the slick Gossage). And more intimate, personal interactions with his long-time, devoted assistant Margaret (played with a soft-spoken, intrepid sweetness by Ch’ng Lancaster) and wife Corrine (Orenstein, in a lovely, passionate performance as his fiercely protective, imaginative, loving Texan partner for life) who rally around him during his recovery. A bizarre, surreal trip into his experience with neurosurgery to remove a benign tumor—a procedure that takes ideas from him even as it saves his sight and hearing—is balanced nicely with quiet, contemplative moments with Father Frank, a former student who’s now a priest (a gentle, poetic performance from McManus).

Thomson gives a stellar performance as McLuhan, capturing the essence of a brilliant, quicksilver and playful—if not distracted—mind. It’s no wonder that some people found it hard to keep up with McLuhan; it’s possible he had trouble keeping up with himself at times. The ideas flow quickly and constantly, but closest to his heart and soul are language, literature, religion, and the theories and questions about the evolution of the modern world—and how modern urban living in the electronic age are impacting our bodies, minds and even our very souls. And while the public may be looking to him for answers, he knows that one can only keep asking the questions. Thomson navigates the range of McLuhan’s character with cerebral, sharp-witted, punny precision. And as he navigates the aftermath of the stroke—frustrated and conflicted, wondering what it all means—we watch in awe, this luminous mind still hard at work, with the heartbreaking realization that it can no longer communicate its crucial thoughts.

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Peter Hutt, R.H. Thomson, Sarah Orenstein & Patrick McManus. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Costumes designed by Charlotte Dean. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Video design by Carla Ritchie. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Camellia Koo’s practical and whimsical multimedia set design combines nicely with Carla Ritchie’s video design (set up on in a grid of nine TV screens upstage that also serve as peep holes for the actors—reminiscent of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In). These are highlighted nicely by Rebecca Picherack’s lighting design, which shifts our perceptions of the action with darkness, spotlight and general wash—forcing us to hone our senses. And shouts to costume designer Charlotte Dean for the fab 60s threads, nicely tailored to reveal each character.

As I left the theatre last night, I couldn’t help but wonder what McLuhan would’ve made of the ever-evolving digital age and social media platforms—where letters and phone calls have been largely replaced by email, text and DM. As with other evolving modern conveniences that are meant to bring people and ideas together, we must all be mindful of how and why we use specific media. And maybe put the devices down once in a while, look into each other’s eyes and speak face to face for a change.

The Message continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until December 16. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827. Go see this.