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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Trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned – photos by Cylla von Tiedemann

If it can be done it will be done.

Static for a time, then appearing as if being typed by an unseen hand, there is a quasi-religious elegance to these words. God meets science.

This is how the stage is set for Tarragon Theatre’s world premiere of Fabrizio Filippo’s The Summoned, directed by Richard Rose, assisted by Joel Bernbaum – currently running in the Mainspace.

Tech giant Khan (one name, like Cher, chosen himself) is dead and his executor has called an assembly of the important figures in his life for the reading of his will at a shitty airport hotel in Toronto, run by his former partner/ex Annie (Maggie Huculak) and her son Aldous (Fabrizio Filippo). The hotel was set up as a safe house for the world’s intellectual elite, and the guests are transported to the location with impressive precision and secrecy by Khan’s security chief Quentin (Tony Nappo). Company president Gary (John Bourgeois) and lawyer Laura (Kelli Fox), and flight attendant and Aldous’s sort of girlfriend Isla (Rachel Cairns) round out the guest list. Instructions are relayed to Quentin via Walkie Talkie (Alon Nashman).

Aldous also serves as our narrator, setting the scenes and introducing the players, and we learn about Khan via flashback scenes, where we see how a young Khan (Filippo) meets a young Annie (Cairns), and get glimpses into their work together and the genesis of his empire. It appears obvious to everyone except Aldous that Khan is his father. And, of course, the reading of the will is largely Khan’s way of messing with his dearly beloved from beyond the grave. And it all gets emotional and weird. Really weird.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Kelli Fox, Rachel Carins, John Bourgeois, Maggie Huculak, Tony Napppo & Fabrizio Filippo in The Summoned

I effing love this cast. This is a wild, entertaining, high-energy ride – and this ensemble isn’t afraid to give ‘er. Playwright Filippo is a multitasking machine onstage, playing two very different characters. As Aldous, he brings an unflappable, almost eerie, sense of detachment and calm; minimally communicative and eschewing physical contact, there’s an Asperger’s quality to his relationship with the world. As Khan, he’s an impish, big personality; a mercurial and diabolically brilliant tech maestro with a lascivious appetite and flexible morals, he takes and uses what he wants, when and how he wants.

Huculak brings a lovely, layered sense of desperation and control to Annie; a brilliant, groundbreaking tech mind in her own right, her life forever changed by motherhood. Long estranged from Khan, she got the kid and he got the company, and she’s kept one foot in their once shared world by running the hotel safe house, perpetually longing for a connection with her son. Cairns is a kooky delight as Isla, the flight attendant who lives a seemingly charmed life; always living in the present, she is super spontaneous, hilariously irreverent and refreshingly honest. Nappo is a loveable combination of efficiency and wackiness as the cellphone snapping, air freshener spraying security guy Quentin; a schlub in a uniform, he also appears to be a narcoleptic, but this doesn’t stop him from executing his duties with tight-lipped, covert expertise. Bourgeois’ Gary is a great combo of funny and intimidating; an imposing corporate badass, Gary is entitled and cynical, and we see his soft underbelly emerge during the reading of the will. And Fox’s Laura is a gorgeous, ballsy 21st century Rosemary Clooney; pragmatic, but warm, she’s a sharp no-nonsense professional – and a woman with a confession to make.

The Summoned, Tarragon Theatre
Seated: John Bourgeois, Fabrizio Filippo & Maggie Huculak, with Kelli Fox on the floor

On the serious side, The Summoned is an exploration of the history and evolution of tech, and its applications and implications for our lives. If it can be done it will be done. Forever and ever, Amen.

With shouts to the design team, especially Jason Hand (lighting and set) and Kurt Firla (video) for the minimalist, multimedia environment; the playing space has a crisp, sleek quality to it – making you expect to see Steve Jobs walk out to launch a new iPhone. (Yes, I know, he’s dead.)

A trippy, quirky, thought-provoking mind-f*ck of a good time in The Summoned.

The Summoned continues in the Tarragon Mainspace until May 29; get your tix in advance, kids – this show is packing the house.

In the meantime, check out this Theatromania interview with playwright/actor Filippo.