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Amaza Payne performs in 'Is My Microphone On?', a new outdoor performance penned by two-time Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill and produced by Canadian Stage.Elana Emer/Canadian Stage

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  • Title: Is My Microphone On?
  • Written by: Jordan Tannahill
  • Director: Erin Brubacher
  • Company: Canadian Stage
  • Venue: High Park Amphitheatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To Sept. 19, 2021

Critic’s Pick

It’s hard not to feel surrounded right now.

There’s the pandemic we’re immersed in, of course, but also the climate emergency engulfing us. Authoritarianism rears its ugly head all around, while our own democratic institutions struggle to keep the trolls at bay.

Is My Microphone On?, a new outdoor performance penned by two-time Governor General’s Award-winning playwright (and current Giller-longlisted novelist) Jordan Tannahill and produced by Canadian Stage, is yet another such loop.

Seventeen teenagers form a circle around the audience sitting in the High Park Amphitheatre. If you imagine this might be a nice change from the other things encircling us, however, you’re mistaken – they want us to come out with our hands up.

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Chloe Cha is among the 17 young performers in 'Is My Microphone On?'McKenzie James/Canadian Stage

“Is my microphone on?” is the first line of Tannahill’s show – but it’s not his own. The phrase is taken from a speech by Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmentalist.

Like Thunberg, the 17 teenagers here are fed up with adults for having let the spectre of climate change evolve into a climate emergency. Have we not been listening to the experts?

Teenagers have been listening to the experts a lot during the pandemic – and that’s only made them angrier. They sacrificed school and curtailed all activities to protect the older generations from a virus that doesn’t affect the young quite as much, but the older (and oldest) generations aren’t returning the favour – they’re still out there driving SUVs and voting for political parties that care more about keeping taxes low than preventing the planet from burning and flooding.

“We stopped the world for you,” one teen in the show says. “We stopped our lives.”

“You are failures,” another says.

This stings – because it’s true. But are we, the adults in this captive audience, in for an hour-long berating session? And are we to uncritically accept this lip from a group of teens who we know full well are speaking the words of a 33-year-old playwright?

Luckily, the evening Tannahill and director/dramaturge Erin Brubacher have crafted for us is more surprising than that.

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Iylah Mohammed performs in 'Is My Microphone On?'Elana Emer/Canadian Stage

Anger evolves into disappointment, interrogation transforms into introspection, hate starts to flirt with love.

The teens’ political messaging gets sidetracked by personal revelations that are even more unnerving – and eventually their chorus of disapproval even starts to slip away from human concerns altogether.

Is My Microphone On? doesn’t have an arc, exactly; it’s a piece of post-dramatic theatre with no way out, just as there’s no end to the feeds on your social networks. It spirals like we do.

There’s always something disarming about putting teenagers in charge and putting their vulnerability on display in a live performance – Tannahill and Brubacher have done so before in 2014′s Concord Floral, following in the footsteps of cutting-edge creators such as Toronto writer and director Darren O’Donnell and the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed.

“We’re scared of them – and scared for them. They make us think of their future, and our past.” That’s how British critic Brian Logan described watching adolescents on stage in his review of the influential Ontroerend Goed show Once and For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen, which Tannahill’s show evokes in title and form.

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The phrase 'Is my microphone on?' is both the title and the first line of Tannahill’s show, taken from a speech by Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish environmentalist.Elana Emer/Canadian Stage

The chaotic presence of Toronto-area teens, untrained or semitrained as performers, in Is My Microphone On? is counterbalanced by how carefully calibrated the text and movements and music they perform are.

There’s a shocking shard of dance (courtesy of choreographer Cara Spooner) performed by one teen that takes your breath away and plays around with the idea of who is in control of the show (or the planet).

And a dazzlingly deconstructed song at the climax, composed by veteran Vancouver singer-songwriter Veda Hille, is gorgeously performed – and cleverly undercut by the fact that we’ve earlier learned that every time a particular note is played or a drum is struck, that correlates to a certain number of species going extinct or an amount of ice shelf collapsing.

There are some beautiful elements in Sherri Hay’s set design that are easy to overlook until Kaitlin Hickey’s lighting draws attention to them as the sun sets – they’re like magic tricks.

I’d say there’s something hopeful about the show, despite it all, but Tannahill suggests hope is part of the problem. “Your hope is inaction,” one teen points out.

If anything, it’s the brave young performers in the show – Remi Ajao-Russell, Hiyab Araya, Jack Bakshi, Chloe Cha, Felix Chew, Nia Downey, Sidonie Fleck, Oscar Gorbet, Saraphina Knights, Iris MacNada, Iylah Mohammed, Amaza Payne, Sanora Souphommanychanh, Alykhan Sunderji, Catherine Thorne, Sophia Wang and Skyler Xiang – who offer a clear-eyed promise of a path ahead.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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