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 incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

 

Poetry 500 years in the making in Soulpepper’s exquisite, haunting, wondrous Orlando

Set & lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Aleksander Antonijevic.

 

Soulpepper Theatre brings Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to the stage with an exquisite Canadian premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of the magical time-travelling, gender-fluid tale, directed by Katrina Darychuck.

Starting off in Elizabethan England, we find Orlando (Sarah Afful) as a young man; a darling of the court and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I (John Jarvis), he loves to be in love and longs to be a poet. Finding solace and solitude under his favourite oak tree, he begins crafting a poem. Smitten by beautiful and mysterious visiting Russian princess Sasha (Maev Beaty), he is rapturously happy for a time, but his tendency towards melancholy grows when she abandons him to return to her home. When he finds himself unable to avoid the unwanted advances of the Archduchess Harriet (Alex McCooeye), he seeks a way to leave the country—and gets his wish when King Charles II sends him to Constantinople as an ambassador.

It is there that Orlando undergoes an amazing transformation, emerging from a long sleep as a woman; she also finds herself longing to return home. Upon arriving at her family estate in England, she is greeted with the surprising news that she was assumed dead; and, as a woman, is not permitted to own property. The Archduchess comes back into her life—though she has transformed into a man. Shifting into the 19th century, Orlando meets and falls in love with Marmaduke (Craig Lauzon), a gender-shifting person like herself. Returning throughout to finish the poem she started as a young man, Orlando eventually finds herself in the 20th century, with Sasha still on her mind and in her heart—and returning to her poem. And, after 500 years, she may very well be seeing its completion.

Like Orlando’s view of the world, the tone too shifts from playful and fun to furtive and melancholy as the story plays out on Lorenzo Savoini’s icy clean, bright, minimalist set; Gillian Gallow’s stunning period costumes and Thomas Ryder Payne’s haunting soundtrack complete the storytelling. Stellar work from the ensemble in this complex, multi-dimensional, multi-layered tale of love, beauty, poetry, transformation and time travel. Much of the storytelling is directed outward to the audience, with the narration being delivered by the three chorus members, as well as characters, as scenes play out.

Afful switches masterfully between Orlando’s playfully comic and darkly introspective moments, having us laughing one minute, and then breaking our hearts the next. Beaty is majestic and mysterious as the striking, spirited Sasha; a vivacious and wandering soul, the practical Sasha appears to be more anchored in the present than the romantic Orlando, whose mind lives more in the past and the future. Orlando wishes to possess her, and she will not be possessed. And the three actors (Jarvis, Lauzon and McCooeye) who comprise the chorus deftly, and delightfully, play a variety of male and female characters; further underlining the overlap and of “male” and “female” characteristics within each of us.

An embodiment of the spirit of the age, Orlando lives across time periods where “gender fluid” and “non-binary” weren’t even terms yet. And we recognize—as these characters so aptly illustrate—that, while gender-prescribed roles and gender presentation are socially-imposed constructs, we humans have been playing with the notion of gender for centuries.

Orlando continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre till July 29. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

The impact of image on memory, identity & social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector

Abraham Asto, Louisa Zhu, Michelle Polak & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

 

Theatre Gargantua celebrates its 25th birthday with the world premiere of Reflector, conceived and directed by Jacquie PA Thomas, and written by Michael Spence—opening last night in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Starring Abraham Asto, Michael Spence, Michelle Polak and Louisa Zhu, Reflector is a multimedia, multidisciplinary journey of sight, sound, memory and emotion as the storytelling explores the impact of image, tricks of the light and the perceptions of the mind’s eye. Combining physical theatre, poetry/spoken word, scenes and monologues with evocative soundscapes and a kaleidoscope of images, Reflector features projection and lighting design by Laird Macdonald, a set designed by Macdonald and Spence, sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne and costume design by Melanie McNeill.

We follow the interviews and experiences of three patients of psychologist/neuroscientist Dr. Haddad (Asto): photojournalist Declan (Spence), who took a Pulitzer prize-winning photo of a little girl who was killed among the charred ruins of her war-torn neighbourhood, and who now can’t identify everyday objects; Roula (Polak), a woman with hyperthymesia, who remembers every minute detail of everything she’s ever seen; and Kelly (Zhu), an Internet phenomenon who’s been living her life almost exclusively online, until one day she stopped doing so. All are poets; and this is reflected in the lyric language of monologues, rapid fire rap and spoken word, and the way these characters see the world, including themselves. Secret thoughts and inner conflicts emerge—even for Dr. Haddad, whose love of science is equalled only by his love of a childhood fascination with an art that at first betrayed him.

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Michelle Polak & Michael Spence (foreground); Louisa Zhu & Abraham Asto (background). Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The pacing and tone shifts back and forth, playing out opposites in a rich audio/visual tapestry of conflicting thoughts and emotions: calm and storm, light and shadow, break-neck speed and Sunday drive, fluid and erratic, soothing and jarring, cerebral and visceral. Movement matches sight and sound in evocative, innovative—and at times disturbing—ways.

Outstanding performances from the entire ensemble here, as the performers play out this story in a physical, vocal and emotional marathon. Asto brings a nice balance of warm, thoughtful professional and curious, child-like fascination to scientist Dr. Haddad— who gets an equally warm, child-like send-up from the other characters in a hilarious scene of self-reflection. Spence gives the tortured, frustrated Declan a fierce internal boil beneath the fragile, vulnerable surface. Polak’s Roula has a puck-like, wise-cracking frankness that belies inner turmoil and terrified grasping for identity. And Zhu’s got mad rapping skills, her mouth shooting words like a semi-automatic; then shows great debating chops as Kelly makes her argument for her virtual life—a life interrupted, but by what?

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Abraham Asto & Michael Spence. Lighting & projection design by Laird MacDonald. Set design by Michael Spence & Laird MacDonald. Costume design by Melanie McNeill. Photo by Michael Cooper

The impact of image on memory, identity and social change in the remarkable, moving, visually epic Reflector.

Reflector continues at TPM until November 18; get your advance tickets online .

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet

Christine Horne as Hamlet in Prince Hamlet—photo by Bronwen Sharp

 

Why Not Theatre mounts Ravi Jain’s exciting bilingual (ASL and English) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its production of Prince Hamlet, directed by Jain; and currently running at the Theatre Centre.

This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.

The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.

Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.

Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.

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Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.

PRINCE HAMLET-(standing) Karen Robinson as Gertrude, Rick Roberts as Claudius, (kneeling) Jeff Ho as Ophelia, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes-photo Bronwen Sharp
Foreground: Jeff Ho as Ophelia & Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes; Background: Karen Robinson as Gertrude & Rick Roberts as Claudius—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.

Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.

With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet continues at the Theatre Centre until April 29; get advance tickets online.

Check out this conversation (in ASL and English, with subtitles and interpreter voice-over) between director Ravi Jain and actor Dawn Jani Birley for Intermission Magazine.

Love letter to the universe – The De Chardin Project @ Theatre Passe Muraille

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Cyrus Lane & Maev Beaty – photo by Michael Cooper

“It’s a love story about the origins of the universe.”The De Chardin Project playwright Adam Seybold

When you enter the mainspace of Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) to see Adam Seybold’s Dora Mavor Moore-winning play The De Chardin Project, the space has been re-imagined, with the audience positioned around three sides of a central raised rectangular playing space, framed – like a box without sides. The colours red and black predominate; a single bare light bulb hangs in the centre and several focused beams of light shine onto the floor from above. Centre stage, a man in a black suit lies on his stomach. Still. An otherworldly soundtrack plays, like wind chimes – industrial and celestial at the same time. And something else. Wind? Water? Both. The music crescendos into a thunderstorm. The man stirs. And rises, wondering where he is, the soundscape evoking the haze of emerging consciousness.

Directed by Alan Dilworth, The De Chardin Project mines the life and experiences of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), geologist, paleontologist and Jesuit priest, a man devoted to the study of rocks and bones in a passionate effort to understand the origins of the universe. A man of God and a man of science, his refusal to renounce evolution theory – and reconcile it with creationism – gained negative attention from Rome and forced his order to exile him to China, where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man. Seybold’s script excavates the personal for the universal – and no matter where you stand on the origins of the universe, the result is a fascinating and emotional experience.

De Chardin (Cyrus Lane) is dying from a cerebral hemorrhage, a broken tea cup on the floor the only artifact of his life in the space he now occupies. He is like Schrodinger’s cat in the box – both alive and dead. From a trap door in the floor, a woman appears. She is his Guide (Maev Beaty), who sets out to usher him through seminal moments of his life in order to piece it back together.

Lane is luminous as de Chardin, scholarly and confident but not arrogant, quick-witted and driven. We see a man full of love – for God, the universe. Everything. Lonely in the space between creationism and evolution theory, and sad that he cannot touch that which he seeks – yet optimistic in the face of rejection and misunderstanding, even as he struggles to be so. Beaty is lovely as the Guide, cryptic but warm and open. Also tasked with playing various characters from de Chardin’s life, she gives a remarkable performance throughout, portraying people of various ages, genders and nationalities. As de Chardin’s friend and colleague Lucille, an American artist, she is beautifully sharp and irreverently funny. Like de Chardin, she is full of longing, but more grounded in the physical present than reaching through time and space for that which she cannot grasp.

The four elements figure prominently in this production – especially fire. Fire as an object of fear, transformation, destruction, illumination, desire and symbol. The spark of creation. The elements are incorporated into the remarkable set design, with various trap doors housing props, furniture and even spaces: an excavation site, a pitcher of water, a candle. Shouts to Lorenzo Savoini (production design) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound design).

The De Chardin Project is a profoundly moving and human exploration of faith and science, love and the search for meaning in the universe.

Speaking as a recovering Catholic, I was left both moved and intrigued, my eyes wet and mind full. But that’s just me – you’ll have to go see for yourself. Let me know what you think. In the meantime, take a look at some behind the scenes moments here:

The De Chardin Project continues its run at the TPM mainspace until December 14. Go see this.