Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
“THE MESSAGE” a bold new play by Jason Sherman, now in its world premiere at the Tarragon Mainspace, is a must-see theatrical experience – whether or not you are familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s work. R. H Thomson is outstanding in a tour-de-force piece of acting showing great depth, power, and beauty. Walking away from the theatre on opening night, I felt I had seen McLuhan himself. Amazing, as he died in 1980.
McLuhan, born in Edmonton in 1911 and raised in Winnipeg, taught at the University of Toronto for most of his career, at the Centre for Culture and Technology. Photo by Cylla von Tidemann
He became one of the most influential thinkers of the mid-20th century. Most of us know him by the now-familiar (new at the time) phrase, “The medium is the message.”
The play explores the meaning of this, not just in brilliant dialogue but in mixed media, non-linear narrative, and intense physical acting. Direction by Richard Rose, Artistic Director of the Tarragon, is well-paced and clear, with beats distinct from each other even though coming in quick succession. Much of the play is a series of variations, like jazz riffs, on a scene where McLuhan is dictating to ‘Margaret’. I think this shows how we see & hear in flashes and flickers; the repeated variations show a more whole picture. (I liked the way a manuscript keeps spreading out on the floor, in wilder disarray.)
The play begins with a mysterious scene spoken in darkness: we hear McLuhan just after he has had a stroke, uttering phrases like “Oh boy oh boy,” sadly familiar to those of us who have been around stroke victims. We then see him just after the stroke in a large leather chair, surrounded by his assistant, Margaret, skillfully played by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, while his wife Corinne, played by Sarah Orenstein, shows her Texas-born character’s caring and devotion. In another role, later in the play, Orenstein portrays a New York editor with comic flair. Lancaster also appears as a few other characters, including an “almost-topless” young waitress who studies McLuhan’s work – “we all dig it.”
The cast includes a stellar performance by Peter Hutt as Feigen, a New York supporter and (eventually) friend of McLuhan; Hutt performs this role with intensity and is an excellent contrast to Thomson. Hutt also portrays two other characters, Klein and a Student. Patrick McManus is excellent as Gossage, Sr. Hildebrand, and Associate 2. Feigen helped coin the catch-phrase “Whatcha doin’. Marshall McLuhan?”
Remarkably, Thomson spends almost the entire play in his chair – which becomes an office chair, a seat in a television studio and in a restaurant, and a wheelchair. The scenes alternate from before and after the stroke, which occurs a while after a benign tumour is removed from his brain. I was impressed by the way Thomson switches from a man who can hardly speak but who still thinks and feels, to a man who is breathtakingly articulate, a master of puns and ideas. At one point, after the stroke, he writes on a piece of paper, “It’s just aphasia I’m going through.” It is tragically ironic that a man who devoted his life and work to communication loses his ability to communicate near the end. Except – as Thomson shows – he doesn’t lose it completely. The grunts, “Oh-boy’s, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, even the curve of his stricken left foot, as well as his engagement with people – all show he is present, even in partial absence. And he is still entranced by language, including the final words of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” – a book whose flights of language go beyond most of us. (“You need an Irish brogue to understand it”, McLuhan says.)
Camellia Koo’s multi-purpose set and props take us deftly from naturalistic to almost surrealistic scenes, enhanced by Rebecca Picherack’s brilliantly-designed lighting and Carla Ritchie’s video effects. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design, including a soundscape of 60’s and 70’s jingles and similar sounds). helps create the play’s atmosphere. Charlotte Dean’s costumes work well for each character.
Sherman (Tarragon’s Bill Glassco Playwright in Residence) has done his research, and then created a play in which theatrical media carry the message. In brief, McLuhan wrote that human communication can be seen in separate stages, in which the “medium” of communication shapes the message we tell. Tribal or acoustic societies depended on the spoken word; then, in the Gutenberg age, print and literacy was most important; now we are entering the electronic age, in which technology creates a “global village” or “global theatre,” in which information is transmitted and received instantly and ubiquitously. His work is still relevant. (Noted in the play is McLuhan’s rivalry with Northrop Frye, also at U of T.).
THE MESSAGE is at Tarragon Mainspace through Dec.16.