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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Progress is coming! Final, revised lineup announced for international fest of performance & ideas Feb 4-15

ProgressLogoTransparentSummerWorks announced the updated lineup for the inaugural SummerWorks/Theatre Centre production of Progress: an International Festival of Performance and Ideas, running February 4-15 at The Theatre Centre. Progress is curated by SummerWorks, The Theatre Centre, Why Not Theatre, Volcano Theatre, Videofag, FADO Performance Art Centre, Dancemakers, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre.

“Progress is bringing together a series of essential conversations being had by some of our city’s vital thought-leaders in performance. This is a festival led by a collective desire to collaborate in how we think about performance in Toronto and the result is a staggeringly unique and diverse program of work.” – Michael Rubenfeld, SummerWorks Artistic Producer

New to the lineup is Novorossiya: No One’s Land (Ukraine), by Pavel Yurov and Anastasiya Kasilova, directed by Pavel Yurov. Here’s the full final roster of shows for this exciting and intriguing new international performance fest, which will also include workshops and community dialogue:

Novorossiya: No One’s Land (Ukraine) – Curated and presented by SummerWorks
Reading performed in English, translated from the original Russian and Ukranian.
A documentary-style piece based on writer/director Pavel Yurov’s experience as he was taken into captivity by pro-Russian separatists. “Part journalistic experiment, part theatre, this remarkable project asks the painful question: how did the place Yurov once called home become his captor?”

Marathon (Israel) – Curated by SummerWorks, and co-presented with The Koffler Centre for the Arts, supported by Spotlight on Israeli Culture, the Embassy of Israel and the Israeli Consulate (Toronto).
Performed in English – a North American English-language premiere.
Three runners, running in a circle in a physical, psychological and emotional marathon in a deep dive into the Israeli consciousness. “Combining dance, text, theatre and grueling physicality, Marathon uses the autobiographical stories of the performers to reflect a state of constant emergency. Who will survive? And how?”

The Messiah Complex 5.0 (Canada) – Curated by Videofag
Performed in English.
A performance-lecture, multidisciplinary work that incorporates ritual, the piece uses the Harlow experiments – which were used to study infant/mother relationship by placing newborn monkeys with cloth and wire surrogate mothers – as a jumping off point for an examination of religious evolution. “The multidisciplinary work culminates in the creation of hybrid images, videos, diagrams and texts from pop culture, ancient religion, Freudian psychoanalysis, archaeology, queer theory and anthropology.”

D-Sisyphe (décisif) (Tunisia) – Curated by Volcano Theatre, generous support from Why Not Theatre and The Goethe Institute.
Performed in Arabic with English subtitles – North American premiere.
A construction worker, alone and estranged from his family, a social reject and deserted by God, ruminates about his life as he spends the night alone at the construction site as he tries to find hope in the ruins of his life. “Tunisian actor, dancer and playwright Meher Awachri performs his acclaimed interpretation of the ancient myth of Sisyphus, offering insights into contemporary Arab society and the idea of what revolution entails – all through spoken word and choreography.”

Margarete (Poland) – Curated by SummerWorks, supported by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Toronto.
Performed in English or Polish.
Sixteen audience members. One creator/performer. Sitting down to have coffee or tea. “With humour and irony, [Janek] Turkowski recounts his experience uncovering and constructing stories based on a set of private 8mm films he discovered at an outdoor market in Berlin. The performance is a reflection on the lost and found, through memory and the legacy of silent film.”

Cine Monstro (Brazil) – Curated and presented by Why Not Theatre, with the support of Department of Canadian Heritage
Performed in Portuguese with English subtitles.
A Portuguese-language adaptation of Daniel MacIvor’s Monster. “Brazilian actor and director Enrique Diaz … transforms himself into a series of MacIvor’s characters, from a young boy who tells the story of the neighbour who hacked up his father in the basement to quarrelling lovers or a filmmaker who never completed his epic film, these characters are separate yet eerily related.”

Silent Dinner (Ireland/Canada) – Curated and presented by FADO Performance Art Centre
Performed in English and ASL.
Over the course of an eight-hour performance, 10 people – “a combination of Deaf, CODA (children of Deaf adults) and hearing artists, performers and non-performers from Toronto” – make and eat dinner in silence. After the show, the audience is invited for dessert and a chat with creator Amanda Coogan and colleagues; ASL interpretation will be provided.

But wait – there’s more! Workshops, discussions and panels:

Make. Make Public. – Curated by Dancemakers (workshop)
Creation workshop led by Dancemakers curators Emi Forster and Benjamin Kamino, with people “from any artistic background, with any level of experience are invited to join in collaborative, dance-derived processes.” The public will be invited to see the result and engage in a talkback.

Dancemakers will also curate Dance as Metaphor, Language and Lens, a conversation featuring Progress artists Aharona Israel and Meher Awachri, and Dancemakers’ resident Zoja Smutny.

The Republic of Inclusion – Curated by Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley
Part of The Collaborations at Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre
“Alex Bulmer and Sarah Garton Stanley call for a rigorous and provocative discussion about the state of inclusion in our theatre community. A conversation for theatre makers, audiences, leaders, funders, all those in the performance world, and those who are being left out. Progress: it’s about accessing the arts and about the arts being accessible.” The event will be live-streamed through http://www.SpiderWebShow.ca

Workshop: Intelligent Body and Seeing Through Movement

Additional artist talkbacks and panels to be announced.

Check out the trailer:

SummerWorks announces Progress line-up

SummerWorks, in partnership with the Theatre Centre announced the line-up for its inaugural Progress international festival of performance and ideas, running Feb 4-15, 2015.

The curatorial partners for Progress include: Why Not Theatre, Volcano Theatre, Videofag, FADO Performance Art Centre, Dancemakers, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Canada’s National Arts Centre English Theatre.

The performance line-up includes:
Marathon (Israel), performed in English – Choreographer/director: Aharona Israel
Margaret (Poland), performed in English and Polish – Created and performed by: Janek Turkowski
D-Sisyphe (décisif) (Tunisia) – Created and performed by: Meher Awachri
The Messiah Complex 5.0 (Canada) – Created and performed by: Michael Dudeck
Silent Dinner (Ireland & Canada) – Created and performed by Amanda Coogan and Toronto collaborators
Cine Monstro (Brazil) – Created by Enrique Diaz

The fest also includes workshops Make. Make Public and Dramatic Action – The Republic of Inclusion, and talks like Dance as Metaphor, Language as Lens.

Can’t think of a better way to beat the February blues. Check out the trailer: