The meaning of life, death & the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender & funny Or Not To Be

Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho & Karen Scobie in Or Not To Be—photo by Vic Finucci

 

I was back at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night, this time for Glass Hammer Productions’ presentation of Andrew Batten’s Or Not To Be, directed by Julia Haist. I saw the premiere at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival last year and was excited to see the evolution of the piece.

Actor Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho) and director Sebastian (Andrew Robinson), also best friends, are working on putting together a production of Hamlet, with Ben playing the tragic hero. It’s the production of a lifetime—and the role of a lifetime for Ben—in more ways than one. Ben is living with a rare cancer, and his life now revolves around post-op treatments, medical appointments and an uncertain future. Rounding out his support team are his family and partner Sarah (Karen Scobie)—all touched in his or her own way by Ben’s illness.

Beneath the brave face Ben puts on for the world is a deep-seated internal conflict about the project and his treatment. As he struggles with side effects, low energy, frustration, and the fear of forgetting his lines and sucking at the role, he begins to wonder who he’s doing all of this for—and he’s faced with some hard choices, the impact of which will ripple out to those he loves.

Really lovely work and great chemistry from this three-hander cast in this intimate and candid production. DeSouza-Coelho’s Ben is a compelling picture of stoicism and determination, his thousand-mile stare and stillness belying the troubled soul beneath the surface; and he gives us nicely drawn Hamlet in a selection of classic soliloquies. Robinson brings the perfect balance of cockiness and warmth to Sebastian; Ben’s best friend since grade school, his theatrical ambitions are put into perspective by his support and care of Ben. Scobie gives Sarah a poignant sense of vulnerability and conflict as Ben’s lovingly supportive and uncomplaining partner; torn between wanting what’s best for Ben and not wanting to let him go, Sarah must confront her own feelings and motives. These relationship dynamics have all the truth, humour and feeling of people who know each other well—and in Ben and Sebastian’s case, a long time. And while the truth may be hard to take, it’s served up with love and honesty.

In the end, it makes you think. How would you react in Ben’s situation? What would your life be? And, as your life is right now, what’s your Hamlet? We are reminded that time is a precious, non-renewable resource—and despite the best intentions of those we love, it is we who must ultimately decide what path our lives will take.

With shouts to Liz Currie, the intrepid stage manager, lighting designer and tech in the booth; and to Wellspring, an organization—noted in the program—that provides programs and services for people living with cancer and their caregivers.

The meaning of life, death and the role of a lifetime in the moving, tender and funny Or Not To Be.

Or Not To Be continues at Red Sandcastle until January 28, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, with 2 pm matinees on Jan 20, 21, 27 and 28. Tickets available by calling the box office at 416 845-9411, or online at this link for first seven shows and this link for the final seven shows.

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Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet

Christine Horne as Hamlet in Prince Hamlet—photo by Bronwen Sharp

 

Why Not Theatre mounts Ravi Jain’s exciting bilingual (ASL and English) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with its production of Prince Hamlet, directed by Jain; and currently running at the Theatre Centre.

This production has already been garnering some well-deserved buzz. Not only does Prince Hamlet make the Shakespeare classic accessible for Deaf audiences, it addresses issues of diversity and inclusion in casting, particularly for the largely white, male, Eurocentric, and hearing, classics. Jain’s text adeptly shifts scenes (Horatio’s speech to Fortinbras, usually seen at the end of the play, is used as an introduction, with Horatio addressing the audience), and effectively interweaves scenes of action with those of corresponding exposition (Horatio and the guards encountering/reporting of the ghost, as well as moments/reports of Hamlet’s erratic behaviour) in an engaging and theatrical way. We also see scenes from different perspectives—and it’s all performed by an outstanding ensemble of actors, with female actors taking on a number of male roles and a male actor playing Ophelia.

The program provides a handy synopsis of the play, which I will not replay here; if you need a refresher or you’re new to Hamlet, you can also check out the Wikipedia page. What is remarkable about this production is that Horatio (played by Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley) is featured prominently; our narrator, he is both witness to and interpreter of (signing much of the text) Hamlet’s (Christine Horne) story. ASL is incorporated into the dialogue in a seamless, inclusive way that reveals relationships, in that Horatio is understood by Hamlet when he signs, and Hamlet communicates with him in both English and ASL. In many respects, the story is told from Horatio’s point of view—culminating in that fateful final scene where the dead outnumber the living and, one of the few still standing, Horatio bids a tearful farewell to his friend.

Joining Birley and Horne for this journey of revenge, reflections on mortality and tragedy are Miriam Fernandes (Rosencrantz, Player King, Gravedigger), Jeff Ho (Ophelia), Hannah Miller (Guildenstern, Player Queen), Rick Roberts (Claudius), Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah (Laertes), Karen Robinson (Gertrude) and Maria Vacratsis (Polonius); all actors play their respective characters as originally written and all introduce themselves in ASL at the top of the show. These are actors playing characters, and regardless of gender casting, each brings a grounded, genuine and unique interpretation of the person they’re playing. And this cast looks like the people we see every day in our city.

Horne gives us a compelling and moving Hamlet, bringing a fragile edge to his melancholy, countered by a sharp, wry sense of humour. This adaptation has Horne also playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father, an interesting choice that evokes dark moments of possession. A bashful and cheeky romantic in love with Ophelia, playful and candid with his bosom friend Horatio, and poetic in his philosophical inner debates on revenge and mortality, this is a Hamlet for the 21st century.

PRINCE HAMLET-Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio-photo Bronwen Sharp
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Birley’s complex, conflicted Horatio is both a part of and witness to the tragedy that unfolds. Also acting as our host and guide, Horatio signs his dialogue and translates the text into ASL throughout, including some brilliant comic relief during one of Hamlet’s encounters with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. She gives a gripping interpretation of the fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes, and her “Goodnight, sweet Prince” is both beautiful and heart-breaking.

As Gertrude, Robinson brings a sharply drawn evolution to the relationship with Claudius, from giddy in love to devastated and horrified. Concerned for the welfare her son throughout, Gertrude finds herself faced with a choice between her new husband and her son. Roberts gives us a big, lusty Claudius; living the dream until he’s called out by Hamlet’s carefully crafted play presentation. In a moving and tortured prayer scene, dejected and unable to repent, Claudius realizes he’s unwilling to give up the spoils of his crime, resorting to further treachery and cover-ups.

PRINCE HAMLET-(standing) Karen Robinson as Gertrude, Rick Roberts as Claudius, (kneeling) Jeff Ho as Ophelia, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes-photo Bronwen Sharp
Foreground: Jeff Ho as Ophelia & Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes; Background: Karen Robinson as Gertrude & Rick Roberts as Claudius—photo by Bronwen Sharp

Ho is lovely as the playful, but delicate Ophelia, whose descent into madness is both heartbreaking and disturbing. Vacratsis is hilariously wordy and sharply academic as Polonius; decidedly not a man of few words, he nevertheless has wisdom to impart, as evidenced in his famous advice to Laertes. And Roberts-Abdullah gives Laertes a fierce edge under that affable, good son exterior; belly full of fire, he’s hell-bent on revenge for his father and sister, but never loses his sense of fairness.

Fernandes and Miller do a great job juggling multiple roles; Fernandes is great fun as the impudent, philosophical Gravedigger and Miller brings a sense of sass to Hamlet’s pal Guildenstern.

With big shouts to the design team for their rich, evocative work on this production: Lorenzo Savoini (set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound).

Hamlet as you’ve never seen it in the haunting, beautiful ASL/English adaptation Prince Hamlet.

Prince Hamlet continues at the Theatre Centre until April 29; get advance tickets online.

Check out this conversation (in ASL and English, with subtitles and interpreter voice-over) between director Ravi Jain and actor Dawn Jani Birley for Intermission Magazine.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge & truth

Hamlet illustrationDriftwood Theatre Group launched its 21st annual Bard’s Bus Tour with their production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet earlier this month, text adapted by Toby Malone and directed by Driftwood Artistic Director D. Jeremy Smith – currently running in Toronto at Withrow Park from July 21-26.

As part of Driftwood’s Shakesperience program, early arrivals to last night’s performance were treated to a pre-show chat between AD/director Smith and Dr. Jill Levenson, Professor Emeritus at UofT on Hamlet and the adaptation Driftwood is using for this production. The themes of grief, revenge and truth run throughout this tragedy – grief in particular. Malone’s adaptation for Driftwood mainly draws from two versions of the script: the 1603 (first) quarto and the 1623 folio. Known as the “bad quarto,” the 1603 text lacks the refinement of later versions, but has a brisk pace that lends itself well to the action and staging of the play. By combining these two variations of the text, Malone has created a script that is both fast-paced and eloquent – and by so doing, Hamlet doesn’t come off as an overly intellectual procrastinator, but a highly intelligent and virtuous man struggling with grief and rage over the loss of his father at the hands of his uncle.

The set (designed by director Smith) is inspired by a prison motif – real prison, not Martha Stewart prison – the environment is grey, harsh and grim, with concrete slabs, steel girders, chain link fencing and barbed wire. The sparse furniture a single folding chair and a steel cot frame wound with barbed wire, serving as a bed, platform, etc.

Hamlet is one of my favourite plays – and Driftwood’s production is compelling, moving and darkly comical, with a remarkable cast assembled for this journey of revelation and tragedy, most of them playing multiple roles. Paolo Santalucia is stellar as Hamlet, giving the intellectual, melancholic introspection hits of dark comedy and razor-sharp edge (reminiscent of a young Robert Downey Jr. circa Less Than Zero). Layer upon layer of Hamlet’s mind and soul are uncovered – from depression in his grief to blind rage in his revenge. Jon de Leon does a nice job as the arrogant and entitled Claudius, and does some interesting double duty as the ghost, Claudius’s brother/Hamlet’s father, imperious and otherworldly (with some incredible props work on the grotesque skull-like head, mounted on a helmet, its eyes bulging beneath a mouldy crown). Nehassaiu deGannes is regal, sensuous and kind as Gertrude, on her son’s side and unaware of Claudius’s treachery.

As Polonius, Richard Alan Campbell rides the edge of affable and irritating, with the air of a nerdy lawyer, wise in the ways of court politics, but clueless about the more down-to-earth aspects of human nature. Christopher Darroch does some really nice work as the passionate, noble Laertes, a basically good young man pushed to the edge of his own revenge, and a great turn as the thuggish Rosencrantz. Natasha Mumba brings a lovely combination of fierceness and fragility to Ophelia – no push-over, she is Hamlet’s equal, and her spiral into madness over the loss of her father is heartbreaking to witness. Sarah Finn is excellent as Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant – torn between supporting him in these dark times and finding the truth, and protecting him from himself and the forces that seek to destroy him. Horatio is the objective observer – and will be the chronicler of what comes to pass here, a fair-minded speaker of truth who must come to terms with her own grief in the end. And Steven Burley, in his 21st season with Driftwood, does a stand-up job as Hamlet’s hip, bro-like schoolmate Guildenstern and the cheeky, Fool of a gravedigger.

With shouts to costume designer Melanie McNeill, lighting designer Emily Lalonde and composer/music director Tom Lillington for their most excellent work in creating the prison-like world of Hamlet’s Denmark.

Orange is the new Hamlet in Driftwood Theatre’s steel-sharp, fast-paced tale of grief, revenge and truth – stunningly designed and richly performed.

You have a few more chances to catch Driftwood Theatre’s production of Hamlet in Toronto at Withrow Park (until July 26). The company continues its outdoor performance tour of Hamlet around Ontario – visiting 26 communities in all – until August 16; check here for locations/dates and please note the 7:30 p.m. start time.

As some of its previous annual donors were unable to contribute this year, Driftwood is facing a $25,000 funding shortfall this season. Please consider lending your support by donating what you can to this remarkable local Shakespeare touring company.