THE LAST SHIP

New Book and Direction by by Lorne Campbell
Music & Lyrics by Sting
A Mirvish Presentation at the Princess of Wales Theatre
Opened February 19, 2019

Reviewed by Maria Heidler

Ensemble of The Last Ship (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Sting – that “Englishman in New York” – is now in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and starring in his personal homage to his hometown of Wallsend in North East England and to the ship-building community that formed him. The Last Ship is inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages and opened in Chicago in 2014, moving to Broadway for a three-month run. Although nominated for 2 Tonys, it was not a financial success. He re-worked it and it opened to great acclaim back in the U.K. in the port city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then followed a U.K. tour, and it was in Dublin that David Mirvish saw the production and arranged for Sting to bring it to Toronto where, back in 1978 with his band The Police, he’d played The Horseshoe Tavern and The Edge. How would this tale from 1986 Britain fare in 2019 Toronto?

The set is a triptych of tension with two staired pylons dividing a vast expanse of industrial wall. Above, ominous clouds make their way across the sky and yet, to one side, a group of six musicians laugh amongst themselves. Then the actors amble on, chatting, then waving at audience members. They shout out greetings and the audience responds. We Are One! The atmosphere of solidarity is set. The Tale begins. The cast sing an anthem of their lives. It is who they are and why they are. It ends on a chord of hope – but we are soon to be enveloped in that triptych of tension.

Three story arcs evolve: 1) The fight against the death of the ship-building industry and a community’s livelihood. 2) The fight against death in the human body. 3) The fight to prevent a re-opening of the wound of desertion. Director and book-writer, Lorne Campbell, skillfully entwines these stories, which span back across seventeen years, with a flow of cinematic projections that evoke a world both foreign yet somehow universally familiar. Sting’s music and lyrics are both witty and poignant with strong references to a culture deeply rooted in its folk origins. This is supported by the use of a melodeon in the orchestration and by rhythms of jigs and waltzes.

Sting leading the ensemble in The Last Ship (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The cast are a superb unit portraying the many hurdles a community has to face when the world as they know it is about to end. Among them there is the carpenter poet (Marc Akinfolarin) who freely quotes from Greek Mythology to Dylan Thomas; the Union boss (Joe Caffrey) who quotes Tennyson; the town drunkard (Kevin Wathen) who “can’t afford to go on strike!”; the Foreman (Sting) who, in spite of illness, tries to keep a cool head when all about are losing theirs; Gideon – both the radgie (crazy) teenager (Barney Wilkinson) and the adult (Oliver Savile) who returns to his home after 17 years of pursuing his dream to find he has a daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid), by his erstwhile girlfriend Meg (young:Jade Sophia Vertannes/adult: Frances McNamee); and the Shipyard Owner (Sean Kearns) who uses Government Policy to justify his demands.

We are taken through the various roads of negotiation and defiance involving both the men and the women (Gideon living up to his Biblical name by finally becoming a leader of men!) until the workers take matters into their own hands and complete the building of the doomed ship (ironically named “Utopia”). So…all’s well that ends well (the play is littered with delicious aphorisms)…or is there a “sting” in the tale? Unfortunately – Yes! In keeping with the triple theme, I got stung thrice! 1: The Foreman dies before the ship is launched and there is a scene with his coffin on the stage as his widow Peggy, (played with strength and dignity by Jackie Morrison) courageously insists on pursuing his sense of purpose. This felt maudlin and contrived, and the scene would have benefited without the presence of the coffin. 2: The “Geordie” accent is one of the most musical yet challenging of British accents to portray on stage. A lot of fine vocal work was wasted through lack of diction and/or sound quality. 3: The piece is too long. It would lose none of its power to cut 30 minutes out of it. “Time and tide wait for no man!”

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PRINCE HAMLET

Christine Horne as Hamlet (photo: Brownen Sharp)
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio (photo: Brownen Sharp)

Adapted and Directed by Ravi Jain
A Why Not Theatre Production Presented
by Canadian Stage
At Berkeley Street Theatre, Feb.6-24, 2019

Mud plays an emblematic role in Ravi Jain’s gender-bending, racially mixed, modern-dress take on Hamlet. Small and large piles of dirt are part of Lorenzo Savoini’s sparse décor: brick back wall, three long vertical mirrors at the back wall, two chandeliers, some chairs, and a central rectangular platform raised a few inches off the stage floor. Gertrude and Claudius rut hard on a mud heap, their sexual position leaving nothing to the imagination and their orgasmic cries topped only by the prince’s outcry that precedes his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In her madness, Ophelia collapses into a mud pile, soiling herself in despair. And when Claudius exposes his tortured conscience (“O my offence is rank”), he does so while observing himself in a mirror and kneeling on the same mud-heap he had used for intercourse with Gertrude. This is the same scene where Hamlet stops himself from murdering his foul, usurping uncle, but he has nothing more than a fistful of mud with which to commit the deed. Later, in the graveyard scene, he is given a handful of mud rather than Yorick’s skull, presumably an ironic memento mori. Surprisingly, there is no pit or grave for Ophelia’s burial, and the fierce physical struggle between Laertes and the prince occurs on the central platform that has a little mud scattered about.

So, the mud images, some dramatically startling, others bafflingly at odds with the text, take shape at some cost to the production, as does the presentation of Horatio by Dawn Jani Birley entirely in dumb show or sign language. This performance is vividly intense but rather archly conceived for a hearing-impaired audience. The problem is that the “signing” (that begins when each player signs his or her real first name and then the name of the character to be portrayed) concludes only two and a half hours later with an epilogue that mimes the dead prince’s soul to heaven. This directorial choice impedes the dramatic rhythm, delays or interrupts the spoken dialogue in virtually every scene, and frustrates anyone yearning for the story to be told clearly.

Ravi Jain has done excellent work in other productions, but this time I find his presentation dismally inept or sluggish, burdened by his urge to stylize things to the loss of clarity, cohesion, and competent speech. It is clear that the director has his mind on young audiences with small attention spans and limited exposure to the classics. How else to account for the almost manga-like mime from Miriam Fernandes as the Player King or the egregious vaudeville comedy by the same actress as the Gravedigger who resorts to a bit of opera buffa (literally singing into a bucket). This is the first Gravedigger I have ever seen who seems to want to sing and dance his way into our hearts.

Jain accompanies Hamlet’s first soliloquy with a prancing Claudius and then a dance with his queen on the perimeter of the platform. Elsewhere, one scene leaks into another, with the director forgetting all about coherence. Jain stages the climactic duel without suggesting even the slightest shred of physical danger. His cast sits on the floor, with their backs to the audience, miming some of the action, with no spoken text that I can recall. The silence is far from dramatic. Where the production is dominated by a virtually unconscionable reduction of text (it’s all shreds and patches), the final scene is marked and marred by a deficiency of physical action. This may well be the only case of the Hamlet-Laertes duel represented by a solitary mummer.

Which may well be part of the director’s strategy to divert from the generally lacklustre speech of his cast. For one thing, Jain allows sound designer Thomas Ryder Paine free rein with a musical score that is so persistent as to be almost aggressively intrusive and annoying.  But even without this accompaniment, the spoken soundtrack would be disappointing. Hannah Miller plays four roles, mostly crudely, apart from her Guildenstern. Though Barbara Gordon has her moments as Polonius, there are layers missing from this performance. Karen Robinson’s Gertrude does capture some of the verse’s sophistication, though she fails to do anything especially notable with the poetic account of Ophelia’s death. Rick Roberts’s Claudius is generally vulgar in speech and acting. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes (with a nose-ring) is another similar offender. Jeff Ho shows some sensitivity as Ophelia, though he mars his performance by a tendency to be lachrymose and overly vehement when a more restrained mode of acting would have served him better. The problem is that too many younger actors and contemporary directors lack adequate training in verse, and this shows lamentably in this production.

Christine Horne, defying gender, errs on the side of hysteria when she isn’t simply flat and unprofitable with Hamlet’s words. Horne even gets to speak the Ghost’s lines, which she does with a different pitch but with no more finesse than her prince. This is a Hamlet who is unhinged from the start, her normally thin voice often rising to an unearthly screech in the most unexpected places. The direction doesn’t help. Jain ends the Mousetrap sequence with only half of Hamlet’s cry: “The play’s the thing…” Where a spoken climax may be expected, there is none, and where less sound would be a mark of artistic restraint, there is too often loud weeping or yelling that seems to come from no recognizable psychological place.

This point brings me to what, perhaps, may be the radical reason for artistic failure in this production. Shakespeare makes it eminently clear that “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” and that the kingdom is rife with various types of espionage. Consequently, the political element is supposed to be very important in the telling of a story that is really about discovering who you are in a world tainted by vice and confusion. Jain’s production, however, allows the actors to drift about in a context that lacks specificity. Shakespeare’s characters don’t function well if you try (in Nicholas Hytner’s words) to “abstract them back to their essentials.”

QUEER WORLDS

Adam (Nick Hern Books) is a play based on the true story of a young trans-gender Egyptian who has to contend with various pressures, hostilities, and sanctions (domestic, political, sexual). Adam begins as a girl from a traditional Mid-Eastern family that is fundamentally paternalistic. Called “princess,” she struggles with the conflict between her outer biology and inner feelings to be a male, eventually defying her parents (to the point of creating a rift with her chauvinistic father, and being cast out of her home as a result), surviving physical and psychological abuse at work and by the local police, and eventually being forced to seek asylum (as Adam) in Scotland. The playwright renders two Adams (an Egyptian and a Glasgow one), at different ages, who also play other roles as well: the title character’s parents, a Manager, a Stranger, a Home Office Representative, a GP, a translator, a Mental-Health Nurse, et cetera. First performed by the National Theatre of Scotland in August 2017, it is vivid theatre, highly charged, witty in parts, and deeply affecting.

For one thing, it is a stark reminder of forces that come to bear oppressively on any group that must defend its sexual identity as anything other than an illness, a sin, or crime. But where some such groups (gay or lesbian) resort to a hostile or inappropriate superciliousness, transgendered groups do not—at least on the available evidence to date in theatre—Adam refuses this tone. Instead, it stays rooted in its own time and place, indulging in amusing references to pop culture (especially the Lord of the Rings, Sex and the City, and Alien movies), tracing the psychological burdens of enforced evasion, where the deeply troubled protagonist is pressured to lie about his true feelings, but who, eventually, as a 19-year old courageously refuses to subscribe to any guilt about what he has done to his body. Adam may be physically and psychologically scarred at the end, but he proudly repeats to his mother her own dictum: “a beautiful thing is not perfect.”

Adam plays a palpable role in changing the boundaries of theatre when it comes to sexuality because its transgender theme is destabilizing, especially following the earlier sociological issue of bisexuality in gender identification and practice. If bisexuals are often accused of wanting to have it both ways (of being greedy, in witty parlance), transgender people are even more of a condemned muddle to proponents of fixed sexual identity. The play also implicitly raises the tension between essentialist and social constructionist ideologies. The former asserting gender and sexuality as biologically determined traits; the latter arguing for a redefinition of sexuality in different cultures and eras. After having survived (just barely) abuse, assault, exile, hunger, and condemnation in his native country and abroad (with their own respective oppressions of religious decree, family custom, and sexual politics), Adam finally feels more secure, more natural in his reconstructed gender because to him, the new gender is the real thing, his essence.

Turning to Queers (Nick Hern Books) the British anthology of eight monologues performed on the BBC and skilfully curated (with succinct introductory commentary) by Mark Gatiss, we find a celebration of evolving mores and political milestones in British gay history. Among the eight characters who deliver monologues are a young soldier on a railway platform who recounts seeing a devastated Oscar Wilde on his way to prison; a young tranny who appears to be a “perfect gentleman;” a woman married to a gay man; a young actor confronting sexual stereotypes and a lover infected with AIDS; and a man who celebrates the advent of legalized gay marriage. This is range enough, but it is extended by monologues spoken by a gay black man on the fringes of sub-culture; an older waspish, hilariously camp gay; and a teenager commemorating his first full gay experience after the House of Commons lowered the legal age for gay sex to 18.

What is especially fascinating about all these monologues, beside their superb evocations of character and tone, is their settings in time. They were all curated for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in Britain, and each of them marks points on a locus of British gay history, starting in 1917 (“The Man on the Platform”) when a law was crafted to ensnare “indecent” males; passing to 1929 (“The Perfect Gentleman”) and a back story involving a real-life woman living as a man; moving into the forties and an entrée into a queer black demi-monde (“Safest Spot in Town”); and then the later fifties (“Missing Alice”) and a middle-class wife’s discovery and acceptance of her husband’s gay side. The textures change, as well, evoking a little Rattigan in “Missing Alice” and more than a touch of camp sophistication in “I Miss the War.” The 80s and 90s bring out an eerie gravity under the billowing shadow of AIDS, with gay characters (a young actor in “More Anger” and a young teenager in “A Grand Day Out”) battling clichés, health crises, legal injunctions, and societal prejudices, culminating in “Something Borrowed,” a colourful monologue by a man, joyous over his impending gay marriage and its sliver of legal liberation.

There is no weak monologue in the collection but some pieces go deeper and more vividly into their subjects. What unalloyed pleasure there is to be had in the sheer language and character-sketches! Some of the monologues are guaranteed to affect different readers in various ways. I was especially touched by Mark Gatiss’s young soldier on the railway platform who experiences the ugly and the beautiful all in a single day, his heart beating to the different vibrations, just as I revelled in the sheer style of Matthew Baldwin’s camp 60-year old Jack, with his bawdy humour and momentary flips into polari (London slang). The English certainly have a way with words, and even their didacticism can have a cachet, as in the final monologue—Gareth McLean’s romantic “Something Borrowed” that revives the memory of Oscar Wilde through a brief quotation while exultantly making its case for authoring one’s own life to the damnably futile consternation of straight society. Of course, it should be duly noted that these monologues were devised for television rather than the stage, so this accounts for their literary weight.

100 PLAYS FOR THE FIRST 100 DAYS

Suzan-Lori Parks was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama (for Topdog/Underdog), and many of her other plays have also been honoured with awards. She is nothing if not enterprising: she wrote a play a day for an entire year (365 Days/365 Plays), so the one under review (published in 2018) is hardly a stretch for her. However, for all the hyperbolic puffery about its dislocation of stage devices, fiercely original intelligence, and mature craft, 100 Plays for the First 100 Days (Theatre Communications Group, $22.95) is a disappointment. Composed as a radical reaction to the first hundred days of the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it is a political work, hugely but baldly sardonic. There is almost no subtlety evident in its frontal or even slant satire, and certainly none of the wit that we often catch on Saturday Night Live, especially that show’s parodies of Trump, Sessions, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, and Huckabee-Sanders, those rancid incarnations of hypocrisy, mendacity, and worse.

Each “play” is no more than a mere vignette or skit, often involving anonymous figures (named X, Y, M, N, O) or generalized commoners called Hank or Joe or even Jack and Jill. When real-life politicians turn up (Elizabeth Warren, Mitch McConnell, Jason Chaffetz, Jeff Sessions, or the damnable 45th himself), the playwright is content to have them mouth their own deplorable quotations familiar to anyone who watches CNN or reads the dailies, without much follow-up by way of counterpoint or critical detonation. And even the actions (such as Trump’s chronic pleasure in signing things that he has often not bothered to read carefully or some of the period media gushing over the most claptrap things in American politics) are reduced to literalized actions, e.g. “The 45th keeps signing things. It’s grim” or this emblematic section:

Jack: What’s the subject of the play?

Jill: How shit rises. How mediocre behavior and lame efforts are rewarded. How intelligent folks gush over fair-to-midlin shit.

News Anchors: Gush gush gush gush gush.

Any rational person should know the culpability of mass media in helping Trump rather than the far more competent Hillary, but this is not playwriting, it is typing. And Suzan-Lori Parks seems to anticipate loud objections about the nature of this work, as in this brief exchange (actually, there are only brief exchanges throughout the script):

Y: But it’s not a play,

X: Why not?

Y: Because it doesn’t have a beginning middle and end.

X: So what?

Y: It doesn’t have an arc of development.

X: So what?

Y: The characters, if any, don’t change. There aren’t any beats, it’s just a writer copying the news, just regurgitating the vomit.

Exactly, even though in her Epilogue, Parks defends her work: “This is a play in the sense that all the world is a stage, this is something real that’s happening…” Well, this explains everything and nothing. It is really a special pleading for a work that has been tossed off easily, and even while I unite with Suzan-Lori Parks in a vehemently passionate resistance to Trump’s Derangement Syndrome (this is what Fox News conveniently gets wrong; it is the faux-president and his rancid deplorables and enablers who are deranged, rather than his critics), I find this “play” deplorably simplistic—something that Suzan-Lori Parks probably anticipates by this internal evidence:

The 45th:  Another lousy play.

Jack:  Another lousy president.

Correct on both counts, alas. Parks has forgotten that the best corrosive satire needs controlled sophistication even when it seeks to make its points by exaggeration or irony, as in the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Osborne, and Kushner. Anger, depression, dejection, resistance, outrage can be justifiable passions in the Age of Trump, where the perverse Electoral College (a relic of white slave-owners with outlandish privilege) was able to install the distant second-place finisher in the White House, and where truth (as Kooky Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne (the Mistress of Misinformation) Conway, Sarah the Huckster Sanders, Mike (the Pompously Inept) Pompeo, Donald Jr. (Dumbo Junior), Mitch McConnell (Toad of Repubican Toad’s Hall), et al. vividly demonstrate) is perverted into Orwellian double-speak, and where moral turpitude, ineptitude, racism, bigotry, and xenophobia are justified on the grounds of Divine Providence by the Religious Right, which is really a cult that Jesus would never recognize as his own. But Parks’s play is a hot mess as art by virtually any standard. What a sorry result for a playwright I have praised for Topdog/Underdog and Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3).

TWO PLAYS WITH GHOSTS

Two plays, haunted by a ghost apiece, yet neither ghost is gothic in the traditional sense (as in the black romanticism of The Phantom of the Opera) or even in the sense of a theatrical past (as in Follies). Each ghost has a very different circumstance, texture, and function. The one in Dear Evan Hansen (Theatre Communications Group, $23.95) is that of a teenage bully with psychological issues, whereas the one in For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday (TCG, $23.95) issues out of its playwright’s playfulness and dedication to the magic of theatre.

Dear Evan Hansen speaks to the collaborative nature of a Broadway musical where a group of creators conspire to create a seamless whole of music, lyric, and characterization that could engage a modern audience with a yen for something edgy, grainy, provocative. The Tony-award musical is, like Ruhl’s play, about family but as commentary couched in cyber-hectic times. The ghost in this story is a functionary ficelle, but less flimsy than a mere string or thread would normally be. This ghost haunts the eponymous teen protagonist, the extremely shy, lonely son of a single mom (a nurse’s aide scrambling to pay bills while taking night classes to become a paralegal). Evan Hansen eats lunch in the school cafeteria alone because he is a sad misfit, though at the centre of a loose narrative that is flows out of a lie that he has helped create. A letter written to himself as part of a self-awareness pep talk assignment from his therapist ends up creating even more stress than he had bargained for. The letter ends up in the hands of a perverse bully (Connor Murphy), who later kills himself.

When Connor’s grieving parents find this letter, they mistake it for their son’s suicide note, inviting Evan into their family while mistaking him for their son’s true, sympathetic friend. Evan could, of course, correct this misreading, but he is touched by the Murphys, and gratified that they are helping him make a connection with a world outside his insecure, troubled self. Alas, as is the custom with contemporary high school kids with a deep-seated fascination with cyberspace gossip in Facebook or YouTube, things get blown out of all proportion and accuracy, with the radical lie begetting others.

This is a strong musical for contemporary teenagers because Evan is the very incarnation of the neurotic high school misfit who has immense trouble articulating anything coherent when he feels compelled to interact socially on rare occasions. He can’t even make small talk with a pizza delivery guy, but he is affecting. He has his left arm in a sling that serves as an emblem of his “broken” or “injured” self, but he does have compassion for others. Trouble is that the too much of the libretto and characterization is skin-deep, rooted in the virtually demotic. The plot encompasses such familiar things as a teen “crush” (Evan’s for Connor’s sister, Zoe), rivalries, gossip, fake friendships, viral movements, existential desolation, and suicide. But these issues, which could be lofty when given proper scale, seem glib, and, the music and lyrics of Pasek and Paul sometimes sound disappointingly repetitive and flat. Though nicely woven into the texture of the narrative, the majority of these are softly reflective, only gently melodic, and too many go on for far too long, straining for intensity. Among the best are “Waving Through a Window,” “Sincerely Me,” and “You Will Be Found,” the last being a soaring anthem that ends the First Act.

Naturally, the story of a teen suicide and the pain that this causes to a family is moving to anyone with a real heart, but apart from the title character and a few songs, Dear Evan Hansen does not ever have the compass or the depth of, let us say, Fun Home. Though not a sugary confection, Dear Evan Hansen has sugar in its optimistic ending, and this is apparently what the Broadway and American Zeitgeist cannot resist.

There is more than one ghost in Sarah Ruhl’s nostalgically droll, elegiacal homage to her mother and Peter Pan. The first ghost is the playwright’s grandfather who died in his 80s, but who is brought back on stage, after his five children gather around the kitchen table of their childhood, sharing whisky and memories. The eldest is Ann, Ruhl’s teacher/actress/director mother (retired but still living) who played Peter Pan as an adolescent in Davenport, Iowa (when Mary Martin was recruited backstage for a publicity photo with the teenager). A second ghost is J.M. Barrie, but this is a literary one because, as Ruhl explains in her Preface, after she learned that Barrie wrote Peter Pan “by rubbing five people he loved together,” she decided to compose her play by rubbing five figures from her own family together. But there are other ghosts that are just as important in the scheme of things.  One such is Noh drama, that the playwright honours by borrowing the Japanese genre’s tripartite structure for her deployment of her grandfather’s ghost:  “The protagonist meets the ghost, then recognizes the ghost, then dances with or embraces the ghost.” To which I could add a few extra, crucial ghosts in the sense of childhood and the magic of theatre.

In a brilliant Foreword to the play, critic John Lahr calls the work “a mourning and a celebration, a ghost story and a love story, a meditation on death and an assertion of the triumph of imagination over time.” True enough, but Lahr goes much farther in his praise by making a larger claim for the play that he says “calls out the culture’s psychic numbness.” While it is easy to agree that the United States (misruled at present by a narcissistic, incompetent ignoramus) is, indeed, too often terrorized and relatively benumbed by Trump and his Republican soulless enablers, Ruhl’s play is much too slight a piece of whimsy to bear Lahr’s extravagant assertion. It demonstrates palpable wit, genuine sentiment (rather than sentimentality), some slapstick, political passion, and is evidently written with genuine affection for its characters (all of whom display anomalies of temperament) as it deals with growing up, growing old, growing consciousness about life and death. However, it may be that the playwright’s tone could be considered too subjectively precious for some audiences and readers. In other words, I liked it but my admiration was narrower than Lahr’s.

THE MESSAGE

By Jason Sherman
Directed by Richard Rose
A Tarragon Theatre Production. Opened November 14, 2018

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson in The Message (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Marshall McLuhan was the rage in the 60s¸ when undergraduates latched on to some of his catchiest utterances about media theory, such as “the medium is the message,” “schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy,” “advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century,” and “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.” McLuhan had a wide repertoire of slogans and purr words, such as “the global village,” “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” “the mechanical bride,” and “surfing” as he sought to divide media into “hot” and “cool” categories—much to the consternation and displeasure of other intellectuals with less racy zest but heavier gravitas. He was far more popular among youth than the Don of Canadian Literary Criticism, Northrop Frye, a colleague at the University of Toronto and with whom he had a well-publicized feud. McLuhan’s brilliant career was interrupted abruptly when he suffered a massive stroke that rendered him speechless, though he was known to have suffered periodic min-strokes or petit mal seizures prior to this calamity. A brain tumour the size of a golf ball was removed in what was then the longest neurological surgery in history. McLuhan’s legend grew post-operatively: when he awoke an hour after surgery and was asked how he felt, it was reported that he remarked this depended on what was meant by “feeling.” But this bravado aside, he had, in fact, lost loads of memory but acquired a larger hypersensitivity to noise.

I recapitulate all this simply to rehearse what Jason Sherman’s play also rehearses in its own peculiar way, as well as to suggest how the cart can lead the horse on stage—which is what happens in Sherman’s long one-act drama that shows the heavy burden of its background research. Sherman is one of our best-known and most celebrated playwrights. I have admired his trilogy relating to Judaism, and he often displays a scorching wit in a dual sense of satire and intellectual mettle. However, his gifts don’t save The Message, a play that has had a sad history. Meant to open the Tarragon season in 2003, it was met with strenuous objection by the McLuhan estate and was, therefore, shelved. But 2018 is a different era and nobody thinks any longer of McLuhan (or Northrop Frye, for that matter) in quite the same reverential tones as in the 60s and 70s. But this triumph over delay is a Pyrrhic victory because the play tells us practically nothing new about McLuhan. It is also obsessively repetitive and somewhat crude in its strategies, wavering between expressionism and the broadest, most vulgar vaudevillian comedy, indulging in cardboard representations of women (McLuhan’s wife; his secretary at the Centre for Culture and Technology), and running through some of his ideas on media theory like a de rigueur homage.

The play’s structure is self-defeating because it is necessarily fragmented, beginning in literal darkness (a cliché) with the great man’s massive stroke, and moving via flashbacks through a repertoire of puns, wordplay, and wicked wit well beloved by McLuhan fans. R.H. Thomson plays McLuhan as vividly as he can (“Oh, boy!”), though it is mainly vocal virtuosity for he is rooted or situated in a bed or chair for most of the show. The best epigram in the play is, of course, McLuhan’s “It’s just aphasia I’m going through” that is scribbled on a pad, and the best monologue is a post-surgical rambling monologue that resembles something out of Samuel Beckett and is rendered wonderfully by the actor. (The weird scene with student-disciples dressed as sheep is probably another pun: scholar-sheep, anyone?) Patrick McManus plays an ad man, an NBC executive who tries to get McLuhan to boil down his theories for pop appeal, as well as an empathetic Irish priest (McLuhan was Catholic and loved James Joyce’s writing) with all the clichés of those breeds intact, while Peter Hutt first (as decreed by script and director) overplays the role of Feigen, the American business man who helped advance McLuhan’s career, before showing us the real human being later in the play. I confess that in his trope from bum-waggling, crudely roaring clown to serious confidant, Hutt gave me the most pleasure, apart from Thomson. The two actresses in the ensemble, however, afforded almost none. Sarah Orenstein (usually good) is obviously at the mercy of the script as McLuhan’s Texan-born wife, and there is nothing especially interesting in her acting. Nor is there much of real interest or value in Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s pallid university secretary (her lacklustre voice is off-putting), though her cigarette and cigar lady in a topless restaurant offers something to a male gaze, though not much else to anyone’s mind.

Camellia Koo’s set and Charlotte Dean’s costumes don’t add much to anything, though Rebecca Picherak’s lighting does. At one point, McLuhan suggests that the country we belong to is just an hallucination—an idea that appeals to me—though it could also be said that Sherman’s play is a sort of hallucination itself. And a not very engaging one at that because it looks and sounds trite and manages to divorce feeling from idea while attempting to be clever.

PARADISE LOST

By Erin Shields
Playwrights Canada Press
147 pages, $17.95
ISBN 978-1-7709-933-4

Erin Shields’s five-act play (a re-imagining or re-configuring of John Milton’s epical poem) is nothing if not audacious. It does not contest the prevailing critical view that Milton’s poem is magnificent because (in the words of Harold Bloom) “it is persuasively tragic as well as epic it is the tragedy of the fall of Lucifer into Satan, though it declines to show us Lucifer, light-bearer and son of the morning, chief of the stars that will fall. We see only the fallen Satan, though we behold Adam and Eve before, at the very moment of, and after the fall.” It recognizes that its Miltonic source is (along with the Bible, the Iliad, and Shakespeare’s plays) one of “the building blocks of our Western literary inheritance.” Shields takes the Miltonic source seriously, for her script is preceded by Paul Stevens’s essay “Freedom and the Fall,” that begins by calling Milton’s poem “the greatest single poem in the English language” and which has a massive influence that can be felt from old novels (Frankenstein and Moby Dick) to modern movies (Blade Runner and The Fall). (Stevens was once Shields’s professor at the University of Toronto, and she acknowledges his inspiration and encouragement.)

Where Milton used 12 massive books, all ranging from about 600-1,000 lines apiece, to engage readers who wanted to understand the complexity of evil, Shields’s play is less massive and less epical than that poem (also less Shakespearean and Biblical), though its five-act structure incorporates a deliciously satiric and parodic play-within-a-play and its action occurs in Hell, Heaven, and on Earth, and “everywhere in between,” with Time encompassing Biblical time, the seventeenth century, and the present. Shields nods to medieval passion plays by using allegorical figures of Sin and Death, but most of her dramatis personae play dual roles. For instance, Gabriel is also Beelzebub; Urania is a Stage Manager in the play-within-a-play; Zephon is also Satan; Ithuriel is God the Son; and Raphael serves as Narrator and God the Father.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Shields’s play is its own transgressive literary audacity. I am not referring to the sinewy modern diction and turns of phrase, streaked at times with brief quotations directly from Milton. Nor am I referencing contemporary imagery (waterboarding, the Internet, subway bombs, gas chambers). Nor am I referring to her very amusing parody of actors and theatre (though if her representation is a parody of the proto-typical amateur production, it can’t help being the first professional production as well). Her audacity does include characterization of God the Father that cancels omniscience, replacing it with some incertitude—indeed several instances of a theology that is inconsistent with scholastic philosophy. It also extends to a depiction of God the Son as a figure of reasonable compassion, a figure who acknowledges the need for punishing transgression while also espousing forgiveness. There are striking larger-than-life sketches: Moloch as war-monger, Belial as his antithesis; Raphael as a self-recriminating sort of 17th century Horace who seeks to inform and delight as playwright of the play-within-a-play. Adam and Eve are, at best, the embodiment of a modern relationship. They always speak in the third person, and this diminishes their credibility as human creatures, though their duologue has appeal for its poetic braiding. It is only after the Fall that they throb (pun intended) with ardour and yearning. What I do appreciate is Shields’s focus on sexual arousal and lust as results of eating the forbidden fruit. I have always read that fable as an allegory of both invidious epistemological and sexual temptation, and Adam’s new sexual charge rises to a parody of orgasm.

But all these characters pale beside her greatest character—Satan. Her play exploits the fact (again articulated by Bloom) that “the most Shakespearean of all literary characters, after Shakespeare’s own creations is Milton’s Satan, who is the heir of the great hero-villains—Iago, Edmund, Macbeth—and of the darker aspects of Hamlet.” Shields’s Satan is female, one who is inherently and radically dramatic, light-heartedly irreverent, sly, witty (some of her wisecracks are priceless), flamboyant to the nth degree, self-consecrated as a heroine in a struggle to defeat God and his heavenly creatures, and distinguished by a cold-eyed, cold-hearted clarity about 21st century greed and corruption.

Satan opens and closes the play, and her “bookend” monologues are stunning. She emerges out of pandemonium (darkness, screams of pain and horror) and speaks in vivid terms and with vivid imagery: “I woke up in a lake of fire. /Darkness visible was all I could see/as I writhed in the stench of burning sulfur,/charred flesh, singed hair, and melted wings.” Her arrogance is splendid: “I liberated you from the banality of bliss./I released you from the beigeness of contentment./I freed you from blind obedience/to a psychopathic dictator,/to a deranged monarch,/to a bloodthirsty general,/a bully,/a thug:/you’re welcome.” She boasts, she exults, she demands human gratitude. Her ego is as monstrous as her evil, as she proclaims herself “a freedom fighter,/a champion of the underdog,/liberator of the persecuted,” topping off this self-promotion by personifying herself as a combination of Moses, Gandhi, Mandela, Malala, and Dr. King. Her final monologue is even more demonic, not simply because it represents her defeat as victory but because it represents the ultimate in nihilism. She rebukes mankind, concluding with a prediction of horror and terror for future mankind.

However, she also represents a major problem with the play. Her language, while not consistently grand, offsets that of the other characters who often sound flat or disappointingly rudimentary in speech, as in this example from Eve: “I love you, fruit./I love you, tree./I love that I found you and set your taste free/in my mouth, on my tongue that wants more,/and I feel the knowledge bulging in my head.” This is not the flattest example but it does indicate how the language of the script often fails to match the dramatic energy and power inherent in the characters and action. Imagine what a Tom Stoppard or Joe Orton would have done with the language, but, perhaps, this is being unfair to Erin Shields, who feminist retelling remains wickedly smart as it (as the back-cover blurb phrases it) “questions the reasons of the universe, the slow process of evolution and the freedom of knowledge.” Substantial enough achievement, especially in a Canadian landscape dominated by illustrated academic lectures, half-assed parodies, pop documentaries and ethnically-defined or gender-bent revelations of social and political relevance passed off as finished plays.