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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The Queen of the Parade @ Nuit Blanche Toronto – interview with Lisa Anita Wegner & Vanessa Lee Wishart

Artist/filmmaker/performer Lisa Anita Wegner and designer/costumer/fashion artist Vanessa Lee Wishart have joined creative forces to create the Queen of the Parade, one of the featured exhibits of the curated Parade exhibition series for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2013, on this Saturday night (October 5) from 7 p.m. till 7 a.m. on Sunday, October 6.

LWMC: Hi Lisa and Vanessa. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview on your upcoming Queen of the Parade exhibit at Nuit Blanche. How did the two of you connect initially?

VLW: I met Lisa through my boyfriend Dennis Painter, who composed the sound for Lisa’s Pixel Paint the Night installation for Nuit Blanche 2012.

LAW: … He went above and beyond and created a breathtaking interactive soundscape to go with my live art making at The Revue Cinema. His music score tied Pixel Paint the Night together exquisitely. Dennis said, “You should meet” – and, boy, am I glad I did.

LWMC: Did you come to work together with a specific project in mind, or did your collaborative work evolve more organically after your initial meeting?

LAW: I had just met Vanessa when I had the idea of a huge dress with a screen on the front – about a year and a half ago. By then, I knew Vanessa’s fashion artistry, and liked her sensibility and her previous work. She had already taken home multiple Nuit Blanche Fashion awards in previous years. If there was anyone to make this gown, it was Vanessa.

VLW: The installation began as an idea Lisa had, where Disney princesses and Big Fat Gypsy Wedding inspired her. She originally wanted a gown to wear for Nuit Blanche 2013. I changed the design and suggested that we go bigger, and use various fabrics to get the “gypsy” feel.

LWMC: Tell us about the Queen of the Parade installation for Nuit Blanche 2013. What sparked or inspired the concept for the Queen of the Parade?

VLW: We wanted to explore the aspect of the role of females and the femininity within society.

LAW: I had been fascinated by the UK reality series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. I was mesmerized by their fashion – I love over the top, huge, bright clothing and genuinely appreciated the sense that nothing was too much. I was horrified by the options for role models behind the clothes: Disney Princess or Pop Star or some combination of the two. I remember having this in my head and walking my dogs one night while listening to Lady Gaga. With the huge dresses dancing in my head and the song “Marry The Night” playing, I remember the moment this idea was born. I came home and did the two sketches that I sent over with the pictures. First working title was the obvious Marry The Night, second was I Fuck Like A Man (after I’d been told that) and the third working title (which we originally submitted to Nuit Blanche) was That Kind Of Woman. At that point, the video content on the skirt was going to be commentary based on my experiences of being told I was not a good example for women because I act like a man. That was the spark.

LWMC: The Parade exhibition for Nuit Blanche subverts the traditional notion of “parade” in that it is the spectators who are moving through the spectacle, as opposed to the parade moving past the crowd – and the audience becomes part of the exhibit instead of passive observers. How, if at all, did/does this curatorial vision for the exhibition influence the work as you’re preparing for Nuit Blanche?

LAW: When we were brought into the vision of Patrick McCauley’s Parade, we simplified the idea. The content on the screen became walking legs to give the illusion of the parade moving. And the dress got bigger. Originally, I thought I would be on the ground with a three-foot screen. The Queen is now 20 feet tall and the screen is 10 feet tall. For [the] look, we researched parade queens from all over the world.

VLW: Through the use of projections, the “Queen” will appear to be moving, even though she is stationary. The viewer will have an impression of a traditional parade, while experiencing something new.

LWMC: The Queen of the Parade explores depictions and perceptions of femininity, in particular, regarding the concept of “the queen,” a traditional/historical position of power across cultures, but often viewed as being a lower status than a king. Since this is your first collaboration together, how did the two of you navigate the process of envisioning, then executing, the work?

LAW: Once we were brought on to the Parade, we both did separate research on Parades, Parade Queens, Queens and wedding gowns from all cultures. We shared research and the same images resounded with both of us, and I was happy with the very first sketches that Vanessa showed me. I felt like we are on the same page and I trust her creatively. We found the same virgin/whore theme in the parade queen research.

VLW: Lisa and I researched the role/history of the Queen within parades. We found that they are the highlight of the parade, the ultimate of feminine ideal. Kings within parades are usually of little or no importance. The Queen is symbol of royalty and power. Within North America, the Queen represents the most beautiful, pure and innocent. In South America, the Queen represents not only the most beautiful, but female fertility and sexuality. The Queen is an ideal many women try to attain.

LWMC: Lisa, when we were initially in touch to book this interview, you mentioned that you have a special part to play in the exhibit. I’ve seen your photos and sketches – and they look amazing – but I’m hesitant to put any spoilers out there. What can you say about it – or do you want folks to be surprised when they see it?

LAW: I kind of like that people – even after seeing process photos – really don’t have a sense of what this is going to be. And let’s keep it like that. The City chose, for PR, only to use a corner of my mock-up image. So as to not spill the beans.

LWMC: Vanessa, did you engage live models for the exhibit – or do you want that to be a surprise on the night? Will visitors have a chance to speak with you at the exhibit?

VLW: There are two live performers for the exhibit. I will be at the installation at various times during the evening. I would love to hear from the public.

LWMC: What do you hope folks will take away with them when they see the Queen of the Parade?

LAW: I hope the experience of the Art Parade will feel as exciting as a parade did for me when I was a kid – I am very interested in experiential art. The absurd proportions and playfulness of the installation, I hope invite the audience in – and from seeing our installation, people might reflect on why in 2013, with all the choices for women, two images offered repeatedly are a princess/bride/virgin and starlet/vamp/whore.

VLW: We want the crowd to feel that they were “in the parade” and involved.

LWMC: Any plans for continuing with this project or remounting it? Any plans for further collaboration on other work?

LAW: We are intending to take this Queen to other Nuit Blanche; we are keeping her afterward. I would love to take her to New York and Vanessa would love Paris. I feel certain that Vanessa and I will continue to work together. An upcoming installation of mine (working title) is Neverwet on White and it requires a white dress, and Vanessa is the one I want to make it. Vanessa also made me a nifty Wonder Woman corset to wear when I did the “Art Saved My Life” talk as part of WonderFest past year.

VLW: I would love to work with Lisa again, and I hope that this exhibit will be remounted in the future.

LWMC: Cool! Any other upcoming events/exhibits that either of you want to shout out?

LAW: Vanessa is opening a show the same night as Nuit Blanche, she can tell you about it. I have a whole array of installations in the works, but the Queen is my current focus.

VLW: I am currently working on Night of the Living Dead: Live! at Theatre Passe Muraille, as well as Evil Dead: The Musical at The Bathurst Street Theatre. Come see it! If you would like to view more of my work, please visit my website. Please contact me at vlwishart@gmail.com

LWMC: Thanks again, ladies! Looking forward to seeing The Queen of the Parade on Saturday night.

You can also check out Lisa Anita Wegner’s work on her blog, MySpace page and YouTube channel.

Be sure to come out and experience The Queen of the Parade at Queen St. West/University this Saturday night. Here’s a sneak peek, images courtesy of Lisa Anita Wegner:

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The Queen of the Parade – Queen adjusting
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The Queen of the Parade – Queen underthings
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The Queen of the Parade – sketch 1
sketch2
The Queen of the Parade – sketch 2