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.

Courtney-Chng-Lancaster-R.H.-Thomson-in-The-Message-photo-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-2-1024x695
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.

Peter-Hutt-R.H.-Thomson-Sarah-Orenstein-Patrick-McManus-in-The-Message-photo-by-Cylla-von-Tiedemann-1024x694
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.

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Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

SummerWorks: Revolution, gratitude & being with a roar in The AMY Project’s brave, bold Lion Womxn

The AMY Project returns to SummerWorks with the brave, bold and deeply personal multimedia, multidisciplinary ensemble-generated Lion Womxn. Directed by Julia Hune-Brown and Nikki Shaffeeullah, assisted by Jules Vodarek Hunter and Bessie Cheng, Lion Womxn ran for three performances at the Theatre Centre—I caught their closing night show in the Incubator last night.

lion-womxnCreated and performed by nevada-jane arlow, Clara Carreon, Olivia Costes, Gabi M Fay, Carvela Lee, Megan Legesse, Laya Mendizabal, MORGAN, Whitney-Nicole Peterkin, Rofiat Olusanya, Aaliyah Wooter and Fio Yang, Lion Womxn is a theatrical collage of personal storytelling; told through a combination of monologue, dance (choreography by Jasmine Shaffeeullah), song, poetry and projection (design by Nicole Eun-Ju Bell).

With high-energy and soul-bearing performances, each shares her/their own joy, pain, rage, gratitude, struggle and strength—shouting out feminism, self-care, respect, gratitude, community and sex-positivity; and calling out misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia, body shaming and slut shaming. Raw and poetic at the same time, the result is heartbreaking, charming, anger-inducing and, ultimately, inspirational.

This was the final performance of Lion Womxn at SummerWorks, but keep an eye out for The AMY Project and future productions. Learn more about The AMY Project on their website—and give them a follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Meet contestants Kaitlyn Riordan & Chanakya Mukherjee

 

Aaand our next intrepid contestants for First Folio supremacy in Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD hail from team Shakespeare in the Ruff. Introducing Kaitlyn Riordan (aka Kaitlyn “Frickin” Riordan, or maybe that’s just me) and Chanakya Mukherjee!

Kaitlyn-Riordan-10483-8x10-e1513023135751Contestant: Kaitlyn Riordan

Team: Shakespeare in the Ruff

Favourite play from the Shakespeare canon: Hamlet

Favourite character from the canon that you’ve played so far: Ophelia

Dream role from the canon: Henry V

 

Chanakya_Mukherjee_HeadshotContestant: Chanakya Mukherjee

Team: Shakespeare in the Ruff

Favourite play from the Shakespeare canon: Coriolanus

Favourite character from the canon that you’ve played so far: Pompey (Measure for Measure)

Dream role from the canon: Romeo

 

Advance tickets for Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD are available online.

Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Meet contestant James Wallis

Time to meet another word warrior in the battle for Folio supremacy at Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD! Introducing James Wallis from team Shakespeare BASH’d!

Wallis_JamesContestant: James Wallis
Team: Shakespeare BASH’d

Favourite play from the Shakespeare canon: Romeo and Juliet
Favourite character from the canon that you’ve played so far: Richard III
Dream role from the canon: Falstaff

Advance tickets for Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD are available online.

Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Meet contestant Donna the puppet (aka Erin Eldershaw)

Time to meet another contestant for First Folio supremacy at Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD. Introducing Donna the puppet and her human pal Erin Eldershaw from team Shakey-Shake and Friends Theatre Company!

donna & erinContestant: Donna the puppet (aka Erin Eldershaw)

Team: Shakey-Shake and Friends Theatre Company

Favourite play from the Shakespeare canon: Oh! But there are so many! Probably As You Like It. I’m a huuuge romantic and I love the scene where Orlando hangs poems in the trees about his beloved Rosalind, then Rosalind tricks him into wooing her every day. It’s adorable, I love a good comedy.

Favourite character from the canon that you’ve played so far: Tough call again! I would have to say it’s a toss-up between schemey, schemey Rosencrantz from Hamlet, or the love-struck Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Dream role from the canon: Richard III. I think I could pull off a mean ol’ king pretty darn well.

Contestant: Kate McArthur
Team: Shakespeare BASH’d

Favourite play from the Shakespeare canon: Twelfth Night
Favourite character from the canon that you’ve played so far: Malvolio
Dream role from the canon: I’ve got something more like a top five…or ten. I usually just say “Whichever I am playing next!” Yeah, yeah. That’s a cop out. But for now, let’s go with Hamlet, because I can’t make a decision and won’t stop talking.

Advance tickets for Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD are available online.

Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Meet contestant Kate McArthur

 

Spur of the Moment Shakespeare Collective is back with its 7th annual battle for First Folio supremacy with Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD on April 27 at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education. Team contestants will face off in cold reads from the notoriously hard to read First Folio—and the winner will be dubbed Shakesbeers Showdown Heavyweight Champion! Oh, and did I mention, there will be beer. Lots and lots of beer!

Competing this year are:
Spur-Of-The-Moment Shakespeare Collective
Shakey-Shake and Friends Theatre Company
Shakespeare in the Ruff
Skipping Stones Theatre
Theatre By Committee
Shakespeare BASH’d
Theatre ARTaud
Stratford Festival
The Reviewers (I’ll try to find out which ones)
The People (comprised of individual contestants competing without a company)

I’ll be posting contestants’ responses to three rapid fire questions as I receive them, up until the battle begins. Here we go with our first contestant…

Kate McArthur HeadshotContestant: Kate McArthur
Team: Shakespeare BASH’d

Favourite play from the Shakespeare canon: Twelfth Night
Favourite character from the canon that you’ve played so far: Malvolio
Dream role from the canon: I’ve got something more like a top five…or ten. I usually just say “Whichever I am playing next!” Yeah, yeah. That’s a cop out. But for now, let’s go with Hamlet, because I can’t make a decision and won’t stop talking.

Advance tickets for Shakesbeers Showdown 2018: Jurassic BARD are available online.