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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Revelation & redemption – The Drowning Girls

When we enter the theatre, the three women are already onstage, splayed out in the semi-darkness in the three bathtubs. Drowned. The bathtubs emerge from jagged-toothed holes in the ground, yawned forth like coffins – each with a blank foot stone facing downstage. Vines snake around the shower plumbing above each tub. Beautiful white birch trees stand sentinel in the background. Silent witnesses.

The Drowning Girls, written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, and directed for Alumnae Theatre Company by Taryn Jorgenson, opened last night in the studio space. The play is inspired by the real-life British murder case, dubbed The Brides in the Bath Case, which revealed how George Joseph Smith – under the guise of different names – married seven women between 1908 and 1914, swindling each of her savings and drowning three of the last four in the bath: Bessie, Alice and Margaret.

Lives horribly and tragically cut short by a man they loved and trusted, the three women tell their stories – reliving them along the way, and feeling all over again the elation, fear, anger and shame at being taken in. Each blaming herself for her fate. Moving from story to story, the three women move with dance-like precision through time and space, shifting in and out of a variety of characters – playful as cleaning ladies and Scotland Yard officers, and malevolent and ever-watchful as the husband murderer, who is also present in eerie whistled snatches of “Nearer My God To Thee.”

Jorgensen has a marvelous cast for this piece, with outstanding performances from Tennille Read (Bessie), Jennifer Neales (Alice) and Emily Opal Smith (Margaret) – each taking on multiple characters throughout, including the women’s killer husband. Read is dreamy, romance-loving and sensuous as the 33-year-old Bessie, surrendering to her adoration of Henry. Neales is playful, youthfully irreverent and naively daring as the 26-year-old Alice, ignoring her family’s protests as she is drawn to the “devil” George. And Smith’s 38-year-old Margaret is proper, prudish and full of longing, taken in by John’s promises of love and security. What all three women have in common is that they live in a time and place where women need a man for survival, and face strong social pressure to marry. And they don’t want to live out their lives alone as lonely, pitied spinsters.

And all acted in and around bathtubs – in water and under working showers. Each dons a wedding dress at the beginning of the play and as the play unfolds, each woman takes ownership of her story and casts aside the self-blame for how her story ended – the dresses cast off in the end as each curls up, relieved and relaxed, in her tub. And on the foot stones: Good Bye; Don’t Forget; Miss You.

Gripping, moving, playful and superbly performed, The Drowning Girls is a story of murdered women refusing to be victims and finding redemption in becoming their own storytellers.

For background info on the real-life murder case, check out Tina McCulloch’s posts from the Alumnae blog: http://alumnaetheatre.wordpress.com/2012/10/30/the-drowning-girls-a-real-life-edwardian-version-of-csi-part-i/

http://alumnaetheatre.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/oct-3112-the-drowning-girls-a-real-life-edwardian-version-of-csi-part-2/

With shouts to assistant director Antara Keelor, producer Andy Fraser (assisted by Brenda Darling), stage manager Laura Paduch, ASM/sound op Jeremy Loughton and marketing/publicity/bloggergal Tina McCulloch, as well as design team Bec Brownstone (costumes), Rick Jones (sound), Jennifer Oliver (props), Mike Peck (master carpenter) and Ed Rosing (set and lighting). As always, a wonderful opening night reception nosh, helmed by Sandy Schneider, with Bev Atkinson, Razie Brownstone, Brenda Darling and Martha Spence.

The Drowning Girls runs at the Alumnae Theatre Studio until December 1, with a talkback with the director, cast and creative team following the Sunday, November 25 matinée. For reservations and more info: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213drown.html

Behind the scenes – the offstage plumbing
The onstage plumbing
Emily Opal Smith, Jennifer Neales & Tennille Read – photo by Dahlia Katz

Busy times @ Alumnae Theatre

Hey all. Busy times working in theatre in addition to the full-time job this week, and I was in Ottawa visiting friends last Friday/weekend – so haven’t been able to get out to see stuff. Wanted to give some shouts out to the beehive of activity that is Alumnae Theatre, though.

Lots going on at Alumnae this week – with the Toronto Irish Players’ production of Translations continuing its run on the main stage, work on the set for Alumnae’s upcoming production of The Drowning Girls going on up in the studio and callbacks for Alumnae’s January production of A Woman of No Importance going on wherever they can find space. I imagine the New Ideas production folks are around as well, as they get ready to review director submissions and do some match-making with the playwrights.

Here’s what I can tell you about what’s happening right now:

Translations, by Brian Friel – directed for the Toronto Irish Players by Jim Ivers and produced by Geraldine Brown – opened October 18 and runs until November 3. For info and reservations, please visit the TIP website: http://torontoirishplayers.com/

The Drowning Girls, by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, runs November 16 to December 1 up in the studio. Directed for Alumnae Theatre by Taryn Jorgenson, with assistant director Antara Keelor, this production features actors Jen Neales, Tennille Read and Emily Smith. And a fabulous set by designer Ed Rosing and master carpenter Mike Peck (who, along with Bill Scott, also rigged up the plumbing). Yes – there’s some seriously cool working plumbing in this show! For a peek at this show, take a look here:  http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/1213drown.html

Last night, Ed and I started painting sections of burlap while Mike finished work on the plumbing – and we were joined by producer Andy Fraser and Alum member Joan Burrows, who gave us a hand with starting the burlap installation on the floor. To be continued today and tomorrow, leaving time for the paint to dry before the actors hit the stage late tomorrow afternoon. Will be back with more on this job, including pics, soon.

Happy Friday and have a great weekend, all!