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Message delivered: Tarragon to premiere long-awaited Marshall McLuhan play

In a media statement that accompanied the announcement of Tarragon’s forthcoming programming, artistic director Richard Rose noted a focus on diversity for the season’s stories and storytellers.

Peter Harte

A prodigal playwright returns.

One of the two world premieres among the seven plays of the Tarragon Theatre's 2018-19 Toronto season is The Message, a long-in-the-works look at the Canadian media guru and "the medium is the message" theorist Marshall McLuhan, from playwright Jason Sherman.

The Message deals with the last year of the life of McLuhan, who died in 1980. The play was scheduled to be part of Tarragon's 2003-04 season, but the production was waylaid when the McLuhan estate threatened legal action. A planned reading at Harbourfront Centre during the city's World Stage festival was cancelled.

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Sherman is Tarragon's current playwright-in-residence, a position he held to much applause for most of the 1990s – the fertile period which produced The Retreat, Patience, An Acre of Time and three plays helmed by current Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose: It's All True, Remnants and 1994's Three in the Back, Two in the Head, which received the Governor- General's Award for Drama.

Since his residency, Sherman has concentrated on writing for television and radio, including the CBC Radio series Afghanada (2006-11). With his latest effort, Sherman is reunited with Rose, who will direct The Message.

In a media statement that accompanied the announcement of Tarragon's forthcoming programming, Rose noted the diversity of the season's stories and storytellers. "We will present a culturally rich season of plays that reflects our country's history, engages with contemporary Canada and looks to our future."

To that end, Rose and Tarragon will bring in Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic, a creation from the Arctic theatre company Qaggiq, which had a single performance in Toronto in 2017 after a brief tour to Banff, Alta., Iqaluit and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. The production (described as an "Inuit Odyssey") is performed in Inuktitut with English surtitles.

The season opens in September, 2018, with a revival of Harlem Duet from Governor-General's Literary Award winner Djanet Sears. Conceived as a Harlem-set prequel to Shakespeare's Othello, the 1997 drama was the first play at Stratford Festival by a black writer, with a black female director and an all-black cast.

Besides The Message, the season's other world premiere is Guarded Girls, written by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman. The drama deals with the psychological destruction brought on by solitary confinement.

Other plays include Norman Yeung's Theory, a topical story about a young professor who tests the limits of free speech by encouraging her students to contribute to an unmoderated discussion group. Making its Toronto premiere is New Magic Valley Fun Town, a Cape Breton story from Daniel MacIvor. Rounding out the season is the Hannah Moscovitch musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a production of Halifax's 2b theatre company.

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Subscriptions and tickets will go on sale at tarragontheatre.com.

King Lear's days as a king may be numbered. Long the preserve of veteran male actors, the monumental Shakespearean role is finally being tackled, again and again, by women.

Last season at London's Old Vic, the legendary Glenda Jackson returned to the stage with a widely praised Lear. This past summer, Diane D'Aquila did a fierce turn as the mad monarch for Toronto's Shakespeare in High Park. Now, Seana McKenna, one of our finest classical actresses, assumes the part with steely authority in the Groundling Theatre Company's Lear at Harbourfront Centre.

This is Groundling's third show since it burst on the Toronto scene in 2016 with a super-intimate staging of The Winter's Tale at the tiny Coal Mine Theatre. Like that production, and the subsequent Measure for Measure, this one is packed with leading players from the Stratford and Shaw festivals, and even boasts a couple of familiar TV faces: Kevin Hanchard of Orphan Black (as the Earl of Kent) and Colin Mochrie of Whose Line Is It Anyway? (as – who else? – the Fool).

The drawing card, however, is McKenna. Those of us who enjoyed her splendidly oily, androgynous Richard III at Stratford in 2011 have been waiting for her to take on another major Shakespearean male role. This time out, there's no gender impersonation involved, only gender swapping. Lear has become a queen, a matriarch and – in director Graham Abbey's semi-contemporary staging – a power-suited executive figure with a passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton or Theresa May.

Making her a woman results in a subtle but significant shift in the play's dynamics. This is now a mother-daughter tragedy. When McKenna's trim, silver-haired Lear divides her kingdom among her girls, she does so not as a rash old dotard but as a cold, brusque autocrat who won't tolerate dispute. You can see from where her older daughters Goneril (Deborah Hay) and Regan (Diana Donnelly) have inherited their ruthlessness. And there's something especially terrible in the enraged Lear's blistering curse of sterility upon Goneril when it comes from the mother who gave birth to her.

There's also a suggestion that this female Lear has denied her own feminine nature. She wears a carapace of masculine hardness that she clings to even as she teeters on the brink of insanity, refusing to let "women's weapons, water-drops" stain her cheeks. Her maternal feeling is only let loose in the end, flowing warmly when she is reunited with the loving, rejected Cordelia (a strong-minded Mercedes Morris).

Apart from McKenna's casting, this is not a radical treatment of Shakespeare like the current "rock concert" Hamlet at the Tarragon. Abbey opts for a straightforward, stripped down production, with designer Peter Hartwell providing an abstract set of pale wooden slabs and dark costumes that discreetly mix modern dress with a few 19th-century flourishes. The play's iconic third-act act storm is accomplished with just Kimberly Purtell's lighting and percussionist Graham Hargrove's kettle drums.

As with the previous Groundling shows, the emphasis is on the acting, and much of it is excellent. Hay brings a brittle fragility to Goneril to contrast with Donnelly's blunt Regan. Hanchard blazes as the banished but still loyal Kent.

Mochrie acquits himself well as the Fool, delivering his mordant wit in an innocuous guise that's just this side of silly. Wearing a large white smock and a coxcomb of red wattles, the lanky comedian reminds you of a giant chicken – all the better to soften the hard truths with which he needles Lear.

But the nicest surprise is Jim Mezon's deeply felt performance as the pitiful Earl of Gloucester, cruelly deceived by his bastard son Edmund and horrifically blinded for protecting Lear. It's a delight to see an actor known for roles full of ego and bluster portraying that woeful figure of decency and compassion.

A wild-eyed Alex McCooeye does an entertainingly quirky take on scheming Edmund, but fails to convey the dangerous sexuality that has Regan and Goneril vying for his love. A gentle Antoine Yared, however, is ideal as his wronged brother Edgar, growing in wisdom as he hides out in the guise of a homeless lunatic.

This is a fresh, relevant Lear that speaks both to our rapidly aging population and to a time when there are more women in positions of power than ever before. Chalk it up as another Groundling success.

Lear continues to Jan. 28 (groundlingtheatre.com).

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