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.

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Rich tapestry of image, sound & dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song

Neema Bickersteth in Century Song—photos by John Lauener

 

Nightwood Theatre partners with Volcano, Richard Jordan Productions UK and Moveable Beast Collective to present Century Song, opening last night in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre’s home at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Created by soprano/performer Neema Bickersteth, choreographer Kate Alton and director Ross Manson, the multimedia, multidisciplinary Century Song tells the stories of women throughout the past hundred years, incorporating the music of composers Sergei Rachmaninoff, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Georges Aperghis and Toronto’s Reza Jacobs; and including accompaniment by Gregory Oh (piano) and Ben Grossman (percussion, computer). The show also includes stunning projected images—black and white, and colour portraits, visual art pieces, and evocative landscapes, cityscapes and environments—projection design by Torge Møller and Momme Hinrichs from Germany’s fettFilm; and featuring the works of numerous photographers and artists.

This is a show unlike any I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a lot of theatre—so how can I describe to you this beautifully moving, powerful and innovative piece of storytelling that is really best experienced on an emotional and visceral level, as opposed to a cerebral level (though it does leave you with plenty to think about).

Opening in 1915 with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, we see a woman corseted and engaged in repetitive action, evoking housework and an agricultural setting. Moving into the 1920s/1930s, she is now clad in a sleek golden gown, placed in a magical forest—the setting, sound and imagery changing as time shifts into the 1930s and 1940s, with increasingly intense and horrific renderings of social and economic upheaval, and the devastation of war.

Century_Song_7With projections covering both the back wall and floor, the zooming in on images provides the illusion of movement. This technical aspect takes on a playful effect as we journey from the 1950s through 1978, where we see multiple Bickersteths as a variety of characters in various living room settings. And it’s particularly cool when she returns to the stage, joining her projected, life-size selves.

The landscape gets intense again, as we’re whisked up a skyscraper and onto the roof where we see a vast, endless cityscape before us. It’s dark and stormy. Now dressed in a business skirt suit, she is caught up in a frenzy of chaos and speed—overwhelmed by the pace and bleakness of it all.

Century_Song_6Returning to a quiet moment, Bickersteth closes with Vocalise for Neema by Reza Jacobs, a piece commissioned specifically for Century Song; with a haunting, yet soothing, lullaby quality that shifts into bluesy and playful tones, it promises to bring some to tears as we return to the safe confines of the theatre space in the present time.

Bickersteth is a wonder up there, bringing a powerhouse performance that combines operatic vocals and dance. Taut and precise, flexible and present, her work is masterfully fluid and evocative as she travels through time and space—presenting the lives of these women, with all their joys, fears, challenges, successes and expectations as they play out their roles.

With shouts to the design team: Camilla Koo (set), Rebecca Picherack (lighting) and Charlotte Dean (costumes).

A rich tapestry of image, sound and dance tells a powerful story without words in remarkable Century Song.

Century Song continues at Streetcar Crowsnest until April 29; advance tickets available online. Get out to see it—this is theatre like you’ve never seen.

Department of Corrections: The original post contained a typo in director Ross Manson’s surname; that has since been corrected.