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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Outrage, love & brotherhood – The Normal Heart

Finally got out to see Studio 180 Theatre’s remount of  The Normal Heart at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night – and I was especially happy to be there as I’d missed last year’s run. Written by Larry Kramer and directed for Studio 180 by Joel Greenberg – remounted from its 2011 season in this year’s 10th anniversary this season – the play’s title was inspired by a phrase from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”

Set in New York City and spanning a time period from July 1981 to May 1984, The Normal Heart follows the struggles of real people – friends and colleagues renamed by Kramer for the play – in the early days of the war against AIDS. Writer Ben Weeks (John Bourgeois) is called to arms by Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), and assembles a group of gay men in the fight against an unknown virus that is starting to take quick and deadly hold in their community. Joined by friends Bruce (Martin Happer), Mickey (Ryan Kelly), Felix (Jeff Miller), newcomer Tommy (Jonathan Seinen) and even his homophobic but supportive brother Ned (Jonathan Wilson), Ben wages war not only against the virus, but against apathy in both government and the community. And the fight turns inward on the group when it becomes apparent that communication styles don’t match, with out and proud Ben taking a more aggressive, uncompromising – and, for some, alarmist – approach, while closeted Bruce plays good cop, and aims to play nice and compromise.

It is that debate over how to best deliver their vital message to the gay community that makes this play especially interesting. Ben is accused of driving the community back into the closet and a position of shame when he urges gay men, at Brookner’s insistence, to stop having sex as a means of stemming the illness. For some, the precious sexual freedom gained in the previous decade is at stake. And it is this argument that provokes the question: Is having sex with men the defining attribute of gay culture? The group struggles with community apathy as the doctor gropes in the dark for answers to a question that no one else seems to care about. Internal battles – both personal and communal – ensue. Closeted vs. out. “Promiscuous” vs. “virginal” – which both sides put foward as a means to find love. And Ben and his brother Ned have their own battle over tolerance vs. acceptance. Ben believes that gays are the same as straights and refuses to allow sex to be the defining trait of his community – but his friends fear an attack on their culture as gay men if their sexual freedom is compromised.

The action unfolds on a square tile floor playing area (designed by John Thompson, who also did costumes) , with audience on all sides, and with minimal props and furniture to evoke place. And scene changes on the set are accompanied by throbbing 80s disco music (sound design by Verne Good), with the ensemble executing the change-overs – the flavour of their action in keeping with the tone of the scene.

This is an outstanding cast – which also includes Mark Crawford and Mark McGrinder, both in multiple roles – inhabiting characters with life and death stakes against an unseen enemy. Bourgeois is passionate and forceful as Ben, a man so much in his head he’s neglected his heart, his fragility showing in his love of his brother and his efforts to connect. Orenstein is a powerhouse, taking names, kicking ass and accepting no excuses as Brookner, wheelchair-bound by polio. Like Ben, she is overworked, overwhelmed and fed-up with political bullshit they have to navigate, but refuses to stop fighting. Lovely work from Kelly as Mickey, who finds himself wading through hell – his normally upbeat personality pummeled and broken. As Felix, Miller gives us a heartbreaking portrait of a vital, handsome gay man dealing with the ravages of disease. And Seinen’s Southern boy Tommy, the youngster of the group, is as adorable as he is chivalrous – a supportive friend and comrade in this war.

The Normal Heart continues at Buddies until November 18. Go see this.