Jason Sherman’s play The Message begins in the dark. The audience hears a voice attempting speech but the words are incomprehensible. Then the lights switch on to reveal a grey-haired man sitting on a leather chair in an office crammed with books and papers. He utters words but language eludes him. “Oh boy” is his often repeated mantra. However the meaning of the phrase seems to shift. The man’s frustration and sadness are palpable. His means of communication is broken. Interaction is thwarted.
Thus, even before the audience has had the chance to completely relax in their seats, Sherman drops the audience into one of communications scholar, Marshall McLuhan’s foundational concepts, “the medium is the message.”
Sherman wrote The Message over 15 years ago. Originally the play was scheduled to open at the Tarragon Theatre In 2003. Then as now the company’s artistic director, Richard Rose, directed it. However, at the time the curtain did not rise on the play because the guardians of McLuhan’s estate withdrew permission for it to go forward on the grounds that it did not accurately represent the renowned professor.
Now, well into the 21st century, the play is back. Its themes are as much if not more relevant today than in the early days of this century. Close to two decades later media have proliferated, as has the variety of material they deliver. Most of us are in some way plugged in to communications devices throughout our daily lives.
The Message is the medium through which Sherman delivers his perception of McLuhan. Obvious, yes. And highly ironic. Another irony is that McLuhan’s writings were co-opted by and for business and advertisers popularized his catch phrases. However, McLuhan was not displeased with this turn of events. In fact, he gladly profited from the popularization of his work.
Sherman illustrates these aspects of McLuhan’s professional life in a couple of brief, to-the-point scenes. One is an interaction with an ad man; the other is a crass nightclub scene during which a scantily clad woman sells cigarettes while walking among the patrons.
Now close to two decades into the 21st century are we savvier about forms of persuasion? Perhaps in some ways. At the same time we seem more vulnerable to the many cleverly presented promises of pleasure, from quick and easy ways to clean an oven to the seductive power of a spritz of expensive perfume.
Is The Message worth viewing? Yes. R.H. Thompson’s portrayal of McLuhan is perceptive and sensitive when he plays McLuhan at the top of his form and when he portrays McLuhan reduced by illness, surgery and age. Peter McManus smoothly transforms from a priest to an ad man among others who attempted to influence McLuhan’s views and choices. Sarah Orenstein, who plays Corinne, McLuhan’s wife, provides a glimpse into the famous professor’s personal life away from the glare of the limelight.
The Message by Jason Sherman and directed by Richard Rose runs at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto until Dec. 16.