Review: Or Not To Be (Andrew Batten/Glass Hammer Productions)

Or Not to Be explores the role of a lifetime, on stage at the Sandcastle Theatre in Toronto

Hamlet is a dream role for any actor. Everyone wants to try it at some point in their career, right? But what if it was your last role? Is that how you’d spend the limited time you have left? These are the questions addressed in Or Not to Be, a new play written by Andrew Batten and directed by Julia Haist, on stage now at Red Sandcastle Theatre.

Or Not to Be focuses on Ben (Shawn DeSouza-Coelho), a thirty-something actor who is dying. We aren’t told exactly what his illness is, just that it is terminal. We don’t know exactly how long he has left, and neither does he.

The play unfolds as a series of short vignettes that move between rehearsals, Ben’s apartment, and the local bar. Ben’s oldest and best friend, Seb (Andrew Robinson) is a director and has decided it is time to put on Hamlet and to cast Ben as the lead. Ben’s wife, Sarah (Karen Scobie), is loving and supportive, trying to focus on the positive and be hopeful.

My favourite scenes feature Ben and Seb. I think Batten’s script perfectly captures the easy teasing and banter between friends who have known each other forever. DeSouza-Coelho and Robinson have a natural chemistry that make the relationship seem genuine. Whether they are talking about who will look after Ben’s parents after he dies or reminiscing about a grade 7 dance, their affection is real and moving.

I find the scenes with Sarah less satisfying. I do think Scobie is a fine actor, but Batten just doesn’t give her very much to work with and it seems her character doesn’t bring much to the play. It feels like she’s only there to ask Ben questions and make comforting noises.

Red Sandcastle Theatre’s small space is perfect for this play. The mood is quiet and gentle; the voices soft and the movements subtle. So being up close to the performers creates a real sense of intimacy.

Even though it deals with a depressing subject, I don’t think Or Not to Be is a particularly morbid or depressing play. Parts of it are actually quite funny. Instead of focusing on the details of Ben’s illness, it focuses on the day-to-day questions that might come up when you know you won’t be around much longer. And, as the director’s note in the program points out, we all are dying so these are questions we should all be asking ourselves.

Details:

  • Or Not to Be is playing at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen Street East) until January 28, 2018
  • Performances are Thursday – Saturdays at 8 pm. Matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.
  • Tickets are $20/$15 for students, seniors, and arts workers and are available online or by calling 416-845-9411.

Photo of Andrew Robinson, Shawn DeSouza-Coelho, and Karen Scobie provided by the company.

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