David Jay and I saw *The Medium* at BAM on March 15, 2022. No, my opera-loving friends, this was not a production of the great one-act Gian Carlo Menotti opera. This was a production by the SITI Company, directed by Anne Bogart. It was an abstract adaptation of writings by the great media theorist Marshall McLuhan. The title of the work comes from his most famous quote, "the medium is the message."
The thing that was most fascinating about the show was how eerily prescient it was. The writings were from the 1970s, the piece was originally done in 1993, and they were talking about the world we're living in right now. McLuhan was talking about how technology was taking over our lives, how the fake world had greater prominence than the real world. He was talking about television but predicted a world where computers had center stage, a world where people no longer communicated with each other but only communicated with their devices. I imagine these thoughts had taken hold in a deeper way in 1993 but dear Lord they have certainly turned out to be true today. Just look around the subway - - nearly every person is buried in their smart phone, me included.
The piece was staged with five actors, one man playing McLuhan and the others (two men and two women) playing other parts. The actors were all amazing, fully committed and highly skilled. The piece made great demands on them in terms of flexibility, endurance, and memorization. I'm usually annoyed when people are impressed that an actor can memorize, for example, Hamlet. Well, Hamlet would be easy in comparison - - he speaks with other characters, there's a plot, he has an intention in each scene. This text was abstract, non-linear, repetitive, opaque. One dizzying scene had the four actors in the ensemble saying short phrases in quick succession. It must have been quite the task memorizing that.
The five actors were Will Bond (as McLuhan), Gian-Murray Gianino, Ellen Lauren, Violeta Picayo, and Stephen Duff Webber.
It was heavy on movement - - I would say it was actors doing movement rather than dancers speaking dialogue. The piece on the whole was confounding (a word I don't get to use very often). Sometimes a scene was presented as a familiar genre: the western was my favorite, the Dating Game was also successful, but the film noir was not.
There was lots of music: a soupy orchestral arrangement of the Schubert "Ave Maria," the Dionne Warwick recording of "Theme From *The Valley of the Dolls,* some pseudo techno music from the 90s.
Near the end of the show the five actors did a sped-up sketchy replay of the entire show with no dialogue. It took me a bit to realize that's what they were doing.
The piece alternated between interpreting/representing the mind-numbing, innocuous media we consume all the time and does not frighten us - - and an unfamiliar, deliberately disturbing presentational style that shook us, made us, aware, and rattled our nerves. It was a challenging experience in a way that theatrical works rarely are.