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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A hero’s journey, a quest for identity & a world in a Chinese mall in the trippy, visually striking, thoughtful No Foreigners

 

Derek Chan and April Leung. Miniature design by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, April Leung & Derek Chan. Media apparatus design by Remy Siu. Projection design by Milton Lim & Remy Siu. Photo by Daniel O’Shea.

Hong Kong Exile (Vancouver) and fu-GEN Theatre (Toronto) opened their co-production of No Foreigners, produced in association with Theatre Conspiracy (Vancouver) and presented in association with The Theatre Centre (Toronto), at The Theatre Centre last night. No Foreigners was co-created by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, Milton Lim, Remy Siu and David Yee; and features performers April Leung and Derek Chan.

Puzzled and troubled at being barred from a store by a mysterious old Chinese woman for being a “foreigner,” despite being Chinese, a young man ventures into the depths of a Chinese mall seeking his identity. While visiting his mother, he learns he is to inherit his grandfather’s estate, but must first discover the password. His dual purpose becomes a single quest, and he ventures deep into the mall where, with the help of an unexpected mentor, he completes a series of tasks and eventually arrives at a secret moth conservatory, where he may attempt to speak with his grandfather.

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No Foreigners miniature close-up. Miniature design by Natalie Tin Yin Gan, April Leung & Derek Chan. Media apparatus design by Remy Siu. Projection and sound design by Milton Lim & Remy Siu. Photo by Daniel O’Shea.

This magical multimedia adventure in storytelling is achieved through the shadow play of miniature sets and figurines, manipulated and voiced by Leung and Chan, as well as projection, animation and sound. Exploring the concept of what it is to be Chinese, No Foreigners incorporates language, popular culture and ancient traditions within the framework of the classic hero’s journey. The result is a mind-bending, funny and moving ride featuring a large and diverse cast of shopping mall characters. As husband and wife co-owners of a failing electronics store, Leung and Chan bring particularly hilarious and poignant performances. And Leung is also a cheeky, cool and gifted mentor to Chan’s determined, serious and ambitious young hero as they navigate food court ninjas and a karaoke performance. Ethereal, meditative moments combine with dynamic visuals for a truly remarkable theatrical experience.

With shouts to the design and creative team: David Yee (text); Natalie Tin Yin Gan, April Leung and Derek Chan (miniature design); Remy Siu (media apparatus design); Milton Lim and Remy Siu (projection and sound design); and Derek Chan (translations).

No Foreigners continues in the Theatre Centre Incubator space until February 25. Tickets available by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online; advance booking essential, as it’s an intimate space and a very short run.