Review: The Message (Tarragon Theatre)

Tarragon Theatre’s The Message, is “wonderfully performed” yet “dense” playing in Toronto

This one’s a thinker for sure… It gave me a ton of material to work through and I’m still puzzling over it. If you want to see a show that’ll invoke your undergrad media studies classes, The Message is being put on by Tarragon Theatre from now until December 16, 2018.

The set stands out from the moment you walk into the theatre. As with all Tarragon shows, this play has high production value with a lot of creativity behind it. The Message, by Jason Sherman, tells the story of Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan as he struggles in the wake of life-altering surgery.

The artistic direction and overall quality of the production is astounding. Camellia Koo’s set design is extremely impressive, with a large spinning platform center-stage where most of the action takes place. My favourite part of this show was how the stage became littered with paper, blankets, and leaves over the run. The mess became so large that by the end of the show, the stage looked completely different.

My guest, James, found the show slow and felt that it had little depth. Like him, I did find it slow at times, but I’m not sure on whether I found it shallow. In writing this review, I struggled with the realization that some things I thought profound were really just moments in which the playwright (Jason Sherman) parroted the actual McLuhan.

I suppose it’s especially fitting for a show on Marshall McLuhan that I find myself wondering if I should judge the play as a vehicle for McLuhan’s thoughts, or a character drama. The Message is certainly two-pronged: part analysis of McLuhan’s academic thought, and part dramatization of McLuhan’s life. Unfortunately, I find that if you only judge this play as a drama, then you see that it has quite a few shortcomings.

There were some very touching, human moments in the show; there’s a bit about how McLuhan likes to hear James Joyce read in an Irish accent. It has a beautiful payoff at the end, made possible by the fantastic acting of Patrick McManus along with R.H. Thomson as McLuhan.

However, I sometimes felt like the show got lost in McLuhan’s literature and didn’t give enough attention to the characters. I wanted to see more of McLuhan’s relationship with his wife, Corinne (Sarah Orenstein). There were fascinating conflicts that McLuhan, the character, experiences in the show that felt overshadowed by the monologues. While this fits with the themes Sherman ties together at the end, it still made things feel tedious at times.

All the parts in this show were wonderfully performed. Thomson as the lead was phenomenal, and his portrayal of McLuhan’s struggle post-stroke was painfully moving. However, I felt that the conceit of having Thomson seated centre-stage for the entire run hindered the show by seriously bringing the energy down. Thomson did a great job, but he was always fighting an uphill battle to assert himself as the high-status character in his scenes.

What’s tough about this play is that while I can only think of a handful of friends I know that might enjoy it, there’s a long list of people I’d caution against going. I found this to be a dense, slow-paced piece that frequently strays into being intentionally obtuse. The long-winded monologues are meant to be confusing, they hammer home the significance of “the message” McLuhan arrives at in the finale. However, I found they made the show tough to sit through at times.

Details

  •  The Message  is playing at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave.) until December 16, 2018.
  • Showtimes are Wednesday to Saturday at 8:00 pm, with weekend matinees at 2:30 pm.
  • Tickets are $60 with Student and Arts Worker discounts
  • Tickets can be purchased online or in person at the box office.
  • Run time is 95 minutes with no intermission.
  • Audience Advisory: This production contains coarse language and partial nudity.

Photo of R.H. Thomson and Patrick McManus by Jim Ryce

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