Review: "The Message" at Tarragon Theatre

Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster & R.H. Thomson in The Message photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.jpg

Joe Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Critic

Over thirty years later, in an ironic turn of events, I had no idea an antagonistic rivalry of the scholarly minds existed between Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye until I had seen Jason Sherman’s ‘The Message’. These two iconic literary giants for me served as steadfast points of reference for many of my undergraduate papers in English Language and Literature. This new-found knowledge of academia head butting provided many amusing points of interest for me.

Although Mr. Frye is never seen, I most certainly felt the tremendous effect of his intellectual prowess in watching R.H. Thomson’s response of a finely nuanced and compassionate performance as Marshall McLuhan. Sharply directed by Richard Rose and magnificently played by five stellar performers, Jason Sherman’s ‘The Message’ is a timely one for twenty first century audiences since Marshall McLuhan was a forefront thinker on the effects of mass media on thought and behaviour.

Upon walking into the auditorium of the Mainspace Theatre, the stage is in complete blackness with the ghost light lit far down stage left. My hearing immediately picked up on the fantastic soundscape of 60s and 70s commercials, jingles and tv sitcom theme songs that many of us in the audience either toe tapped or quietly hummed to ourselves (I know I did the latter) while waiting.

At one point before the performance began, I swear I heard the soundscape become a mass jumble where I couldn’t hear anything clearly. Whether or not that was intentional, it was effective for me until I realized once again the truth behind McLuhan’s famous statement, ‘the medium is the message’. When I was a child, the medium of television sent me messages about perfect family units, not so perfect family units, have a Coke and a smile. What’s fascinating is that 45 years later, in the jumble of my mind in trying to recall even what I might have had for the dinner the other day, I can still vividly remember specific moments, images, memories, songs in my mind quickly thanks to this medium of television.

Mr. Sherman’s richly layered script in jumping back and forth between the 1960s and 1970s doesn’t provide easy answers to understand the influence of mass media on human behaviour. Instead, there are questions to dissect, and this process has been fascinating for me these past couple of days. As I think back and recall the production, there weremoments that still resonate soundly for me.

R. H. Thomson remains seated in his office chair for nearly the entire run, and I was riveted in watching him. Thomson is exceptionally controlled as he moves back and forth in time between the scholarly individual and the sickly invalid who is nursed back to health through the assistance of his devoted wife, Corrine (a terrific performance by Sarah Orenstein) who never lost heart or hope that her husband would recover from his stroke.

I was smitten with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s engaging performances of three unique women (whose names all begin with the letter M – Mary, Margaret, Marilyn) who all genuinely and thoughtfully reinforce what they have gleaned in pondering and reflecting what they have learned from McLuhan about the advent of technology and the mass media. Ms. Lancaster’s portrayal of McLuhan’s long-time assistant tugged at my heart strings especially in those moments where she tries to converse with the recovering stroke McLuhan. Her flirty, sexy, cigarette girl discussion with McLuhan in a bar most enlightening and great fun to watch, to listen and to hear the banter back and forth between she and Thomson.

Peter Hutt as Feigen is a piquant, filthy and vulgar San Francisco advertising man who wants to bring McLuhan to the United States to help him become a household name for his ideas on the mass media. Patrick McManus as biting, blunt and terse NBC executive Gossage wants McLuhan to temper his ideas, so they can be applied to help the third-place network’s abysmal ratings against rival networks ABC and CBS that occurred in the 60s and 70s.

I often wonder, if both McLuhan and Frye were alive today, how both men might view ordinary, personal lives being dominated with the likes of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to name a few. If anything, the medium of Mr. Sherman’s script does not provide an easy answer message about where technology continues to take human behaviour and if there is anything we can do to slow it down.

The Message’ by Jason Sherman continues to December 16, 2018, at Tarragon Theatre in the Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For further information or to purchase tickets online, visit www.tarragontheatre.com. You may also call the Box Office at (416) 531-1827.

The production runs approximately one hour and forty minutes with no intermission.

Photo of Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and R. H. Thomson by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Charlotte Dean as Costume Designer; Camellia Koo as Set Designer, Rebecca Picherack as Lighting Designer; Carla Ritchie as Video Designer, Thomas Ryder Payne as Sound Designer, Taryn Jorgenson as Assistant Director.

The Message is made possible through the Bill Glassco Playwright-in-Residence Program, generously sponsored by George Youssef.