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.

Advertisements

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Bard on the Beach, Vancouver. June 17-September 3, 2018

Moya O’Connell (Lady Macbeth) and Ben Carlson (Macbeth)  (photo: Tim Matheson)

“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.” Indeed, though there is too much drumming in Owen Belton’s strong soundscape, though I liked the use of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy evocative of Scottish Highlands, and the melancholy melody for Lady Macbeth. Gerald King’s lighting design finds it hard to cope with the sunlight pouring in from outdoors in the first half, though by sunset, the colour and mood change naturally. Of course, from the first eerie scream of Lady Macbeth in tandem with that of the Second Witch in the Prologue, it is clear that Chris Abraham’s perspective of this play is jolting. In a set (by Pam Johnson) that pays homage to the open-air Globe in London with pillars (morphing into upper tree branches), mezzanine, and wooden floor with a trap, all grey and white to evoke a cold, stark world that can be menacing and otherworldly, the production is boldly aggressive. The ensemble enters (costumed by Christine Reimer chiefly in in linens, wools, and velvets), and they draw close in hunched kneeling, knocking on the wooden floor as if to summon something as yet unexpressed or made sensible, in addition to stirring a narrative into motion. The knocking grows louder, and erupts into a battle, the noise of which peaks with the simultaneous screams of Lady Macbeth and the Second Witch. The lady’s is more significant: her scream issues from pain and frustration at the loss of her child (marked by an empty cradle that is abruptly removed by soldiers). Her maternal side gone, she must grow a new identity or, at least, the shape of one, with which to affect her dearest partner of greatness’s manhood and existential purpose. This is a world where the three witches (in corseted bodices and boots) are shabby, rough, and ready for war against the natural order. They could be camp-followers or vagrants, and their vocal attack is robust, though far too shrill and unsubtle, grotesque rather than supernaturally eerie. However, director Abraham doesn’t seem to mind this deficiency, electing, instead, to focus on the psychology of the two lead characters, played by Moya O’Connell and Ben Carlson, two superbly gifted and charismatic performers who give the production its greatest Shakespearean lift.

This is certainly a valid way of tackling this tragedy about two characters who lose their humanity in the cause of overweening ambition. The production never trivializes the private, domestic life of Macbeth and his lady. When they embrace and kiss after his return from heroic war victory, the sexual current is palpable. And she is all tactility, tracing his facial outline with her fingers, making him feel her support to correct his infirm purpose. Two heavy doors open and close on what could be other castle rooms and locations—places where malign plots can be laid. From this seed, an entire forest of human folly and self-destruction grows, haunted by horrors from the natural and supernatural realms. The problem, however, is that the title character (husband, soldier-hero, disillusioned poet) shrinks rather than grows in his humanity, ending up cornered, desperate, and fated to destruction. Ben Carlson, shaggily bearded, robust in voice and manner (while being clear in his speech and action), is a marvel of mounting excitement, never merely booming for sound and fury, but a man who begins to take himself and the witches’ prophecy too seriously until his lack of remorse, married to his repeated crimes, shrivels his humanity. Sometimes one feels in the soliloquies that the actor wishes Macbeth could be as philosophic as Hamlet, but Carlson’s Macbeth, while questing at times for intellectual security, is seized by fits of bewilderment and guilt. Wracked with convulsions of nauseous self-doubt, he is stunned and stunning in the dagger vision scene, knocking on the floor as if to be emphatic on “There’s no such thing.” And when apprised of his wife’s death, he takes one of the longest pauses imaginable before the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, clearly demonstrating a man who has been diminished and possibly lost to himself. The actor is not always well supported by the cast and on one occasion by his director. The banquet scene is not as strong as it should be (with a wavering blue light on Banquo’s ghost that often misses the actor), and Abraham’s use of kettle drums often intrudes on important dialogue. Macbeth’s revisit to the weird sisters, when he sees more ghosts of his victims, is pallid and lax. But these deficiencies wane whenever Moya O’Connell shares the stage with Carlson.

Moya O’Connell as Lady Macbeth (photo: Tim Matheson)

This pairing is the best I have seen on stage for this play, far more vivid, more powerful, sexier, more profound in the psychological dimension than any of the Stratford Festival pairings to date. Beautiful, sensuous, and sensual, Moya O’Connell makes a great partner for Carlson, etching the deep physical connection she feels for a man who cannot give her more children even as he plans to kill the children of his most dangerous rivals. The thunder in her performance comes from her dramatic intensity rather than vocal volume and mass, and the actress clearly exposes the “spine” of Lady Macbeth, whom she portrays as a woman who keenly wishes to support and spur her husband but who is ultimately devastated by discovering how far apart they really are morally and metaphysically. Her opening scene is thrilling as she reads her husband’s letter and then invokes the dark powers to unsex her. Femininity shoved aside for a while, she concentrates on serving him. Her womb empty, she fills herself with hungry ambition but not merely for herself, but when her husband wades deeper and deeper into gore and unimaginable horror, she shrinks back in guilt and revulsion, vividly representing these passions in her sleepwalking scene that is calm and spastic in turns.

It is a pity that not many of the cast make worthy supporting players. For my taste, only Andrew Wheeler’s Macduff and Scott Bellis’s Duncan stand out, though there are moments of serviceable competence by Jeff Gladstone as Malcolm, Nadeem Phillip as Donalbain, Craig Erickson as Banquo, Harveen Sandhu as Witch 3 and blood-lipped Kate Besworth as Witch 2. Kayvon Khoshkam has flashes of equivocal wit as the drunken Porter who rises from the trap (hell?), but everyone should observe and learn from O’Connell and Carlson who make of their roles compasses into hearts of darkness, from the first knocking in the prologue to the knocking within Macbeth’s heart that unfixes reason, to the knocking at the gate, and the ultimate knocking to seal (echoing De Quincey) how time is annihilated while new pulses of life are beginning to beat again with the coronation of a new king.