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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New Ideas Festival: Connection, reflection & living with illness in thoughtful, funny Week One program

Alumnae Theatre Company opened the 29th New Ideas Festival (NIF) with a strong Week One program in its Studio space last night. The annual juried festival includes three weeks of short new plays and full-length readings, including four plays and one reading each week.

Call by Rosemary Doyle, directed by Rebecca Ostroff. A hilarious look at the never-ending hum of talking without communicating, set in a busy office environment where chatterbox Millennial receptionist Sandra (Jennifer-Beth Hanchar) is constantly in conversation with a friend in between fielding business calls. Frazzled HR Manager Laura (Shalyn McFaul) is unplugged on a meditation retreat, struggling to maintain silence and stay off electronic devices. Meanwhile, her skeezy colleague Mark (Andrew Batten, who also wrote a play, included in this week’s program) is covering for her at work, wreaking havoc in her absence with a laissez faire attitude and inappropriate remarks, including a hysterical comedy of errors over some texted photos. In a digital world, with so many devices to connect us, how connected are we really?

Or Not to Be by Andrew Batten, directed by Julia Haist. A heartfelt and genuine, at times funny, look at the Big Question. Thirty-two-year-old actor Ben (Arun Varma) contemplates his life in the big picture as he prepares to play Hamlet in a production directed by his best friend Sebastian (Jason Pilgrim). Putting on a brave face for the world, you’d never know he had a physical and emotional battle raging inside him; and he keeps much of this even from his loving and supportive wife Sarah (Jada Rifkin). Ben finds he must make some choices, no matter how much it hurts the ones he loves. Lovely work from the cast in this thoughtful examination of the meaning of life and death.

Teach Her My Name by Michael Kras, directed by Paige Foskett. A touching portrait of young couple Beth (Kate Schroder) and Andrew (Steven Pereira), new parents whose lives are changed forever when Beth, who lives with mental illness, assaults a woman at a bar. Now only able to see her baby during weekly visits, Beth is desperate to there for her daughter and worried she’s losing her husband. Andrew is doing his best, but is at his wit’s end working long hours and trying to be a father on his own, with the help of their parents. It’s not what they had in mind when they learned they were going to be parents; and Andrew can’t make Beth stay on her meds. How much can love take? A beautiful and intimate piece, with quiet moments full of repressed longing and disappointment.

D Cup by Alicia Payne, directed by Eilish Waller. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the women we meet at the mall lingerie store. When Peaches (Barbara Salsberg) leaves her elderly mother Mama (Margaret Sellers) with store clerk Lacey (Claudia Yang) to try on bras at the store while she goes to the washroom, Lacey realizes Peaches has been gone a long time. The highly discerning Candi (Kim Sprenger), a store regular, arrives and is put out that her favourite clerk called in sick. She is soon delighted by Mama, who has a knack for selecting the perfect bras for Candi. Friendships and revelations, and the deep connection between mothers and daughters, emerge in this charming dramedy.

Connection, reflection and living with illness in the thoughtful, funny New Ideas Week One program.

The Week One program also includes a reading on Saturday, March 11 at noon: Riverkeeper by Katherine Koller, directed by Rebecca Grace.

The NIF Week One program continues until March 12 and the festival continues to March 26; evening performances are at 8 p.m. and matinées are at 2:30 p.m., including talkbacks after the readings (noon on Saturdays) and the Saturday matinées. It’s an intimate space and a popular fest, so advance booking strongly recommended: get your advance tix online or arrive early at the box office (opens an hour before show time; cash only).