First, the good news.
Jason Sherman’s new play, The Message, has a superior cast of actors and an experienced creative team. The result is a production with superb acting. R.H. Thomson, one of Canada’s finest actors, plays Marshall McLuhan, a highly demanding role.
The play is about McLuhan from the time he suffers a stroke to his death. For some of the time McLuhan cannot speak or has difficulty communicating. He has moments of lucidity and the brilliant scholar, philosopher and indeed prophet comes out. Thomson is seated much of the time and his portrayal of the lion in the last throes of life with glances at better times is a tour de force performance.
Sarah Orenstein, Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Peter Hutt takes on three roles as the exuberant Gerald Feigen, Paul Klein and a student. He has lots of opportunities for high jinx and sober acting which he takes on with relish.
Patrick McManus plays the more reserved Howard Gossage and Father Frank. He is also Dr. Hildebrand who removes a tumor the size of a golf ball from McLuhan’s head. Yes, it is a real golf ball on stage and welcome to the elements of the theatre of the absurd. Sarah Orenstein plays McLuhan’s wife Corinne and Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster is the efficient assistant.
Now for the rest.
If The Message has a message I did not get it. Is the play intended for people who are thoroughly versed in McLuhan’s life and work? I plead relative ignorance on both counts and that may explain my not getting the message.
Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
We get snippets of McLuhan’s humour, his love of puns, his admiration of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. A great work of literature, no doubt, which I find, mea culpa, mea culpa, completely incomprehensible. McLuhan wants to hear it in an Irish brogue. Some of his complex ideas drive by me without my finding a parking space in my mind.
The set by Camellia Koo consists of a large chair on which we find McLuhan and a reversible bookshelf to indicate McLuhan’s home and office at the university. It is functional and superb.
Director Richard Rose does everything right with the production except for making the content of the play comprehensible. The ideas of a brilliant man shown in the context of his stroke, his inability to speak and his habit of being repetitive are hardly a good combination. The play is simply too dense, slow and in the end provides an untheatrical night at the theatre.
The Message by Jason Sherman opened on November 14 and continues until December 16, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave.
, Toronto Ontario. www.tarragontheatre.com