by Lynn on November 15, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

l-r R.H. Thomson, Sarah Orenstein
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


At the Tarragon Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.


Written by Jason Sherman

Directed by Richard Rose

Set by Camellia Koo

Lighting by Rebecca Picherack

Costumes by Charlotte Dean

Video designed by Carla Ritchie

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Peter Hutt

Patrick McManus

Sarah Orenstein

R.H. Thomson

Jason Sherman’s play is about Marshal McLuhan and the crippling effects of a stroke on his once nimble brain that renders him incomprehensible and it’s also about his complex theories of communication that to many seem incomprehensible as well. The production realizes both.

 The Story. The story follows Marshall McLuhan during 1980, the last year of his life. It alternates between his struggles with a debilitating stroke in which he loses the ability to speak and be understood and the times he is lucid and dictating his dense theories to his secretary, which often seem incomprehensible too.

The Production.  In a rather bold move director Richard Rose begins the first scene in the dark. A graduate student comes into Marshall McLuhan’s office to find him lying on the floor. She thinks he’s fallen. He grunts out sounds. They make no sense. She repeats sentences to him and he replies with more grunts and the occasional ‘woow.’ I say it’s a bold directorial move because that business in the dark goes on long past the point of polite patience. Was this a test for the audience? Or was it to indicate people didn’t know how to deal with finding a person on the floor or how to deal with the person’s inability to speak? All three?

When the lights come on McLuhan (R.H. Thomson) is lying in a reclining chair, covered with a blanket. As McLuhan, R.H. Thomson looks concerned and frightened at what is happening to him. He seems alert but fearful he can’t make himself understood to others. His loving wife Corrine is played with tender, tactile loving care by Sarah Orenstein. There is an intense consideration in Orenstein’s performance for McLuhan. She urges, cajoles and gently ‘pushes’ McLuhan to focus, speak and remember, hands always stroking his, caressing them. She knows his frustration in communicating.

But when McLuhan is ‘himself’ R.H. Thomson brings out all of McLuhan’s quick wit, punning with finesse and the ability to reveal an agile mind that is always thinking. He dictates to his assistant Margaret (an agreeable Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) at break-neck speed without hesitation, occasionally checking her with, “Got that?” And she always ‘got that’.

Part of the production seems to illuminate the thinking of a mind in distress or fantasy. There are vaudeville rantings of characters in McLuhan’s life who appear (Peter Hutt smoking and giving rat-tat-tat dialogue as if he’s a sleazy character from a side show) and rail at him. Patrick McManus as Gossage also falls into this ‘sleaze-bag- performance’ as he and Hutt do a kind of vaudeville routine (later McManus plays Father Frank with tremendous sensitivity).  Is this writer Jason Sherman focusing on the faltering mind of McLuhan? Perhaps, but it sure makes for a ragged, confusing play.

McLuhan is supposed to proof-read his more than 400 page manuscript but in his fragile state of mind he just tips the pages on the floor. Lovely image there of a mind that’s jumbled. Later Sherman seems to be making fun of McLuhan’s scholarship and ideas when his editor Cunningham arrives to edit the tome, reading a passage that is so dense with convoluted esoterica it’s incomprehensible. She then proposes to cut 100 pages. McLuhan throws more pages on the floor.

Comment. The play is called The Message but it’s hard to decide what is that message of the play. Of course the title references McLuhan’s famous quote “The medium is the message” but what to make of this message. At times the stammering of McLuhan in his stroked state and his incomprehensible thinking in his ‘clear-headed’ self seem to be as jumbled. Is that the point? What is one to make of a woman selling cigarettes who is topless except for two pasties, explaining McLuhan’s theories to two ogling clods? Why topless?

I was grateful for the fearless performances of the actors who got right into the process both serious and eye-brow crinkling. But the play/medium is a muddled message.

Presented by Tarragon Theatre

Opened: Nov. 14, 2018.

Closes: Dec. 16, 2018.

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard Waugh November 16, 2018 at 11:08 am

I am usually in complete agreement with the Slotkin Letter so it surprises me to heartily disagree with the tepid nature of this one. Notice the continual references to James Joyce,Mcluhan’s Catholicism, (Mary, “the father” ) and the intimate relationship between words, the sounds innate within them and ideas. Jason Sherman has written a story about a man chasing an immeasurably complex idea while his mind fails to find the words to shape and express that idea. What better way to do that then by a Joycian fever dream. The Message is the most audacious, complex play I have seen in years. I think it’s a masterpiece.


2 Lynne November 18, 2018 at 12:18 am

I have seen scathing reviews of The Message, which I can not understand. It is a difficult play, but it is a joy to watch. The actors are remarkable. And you probably won’t understand everything that McLunan says, but absorb it and think about it later.