Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Slings and Arrows" Offers Outrageous, Hilarious Fortune

As we head into the last week of our local Shakespeare Festival, I have been having fun augmenting my experience, first with Jane Dentinger's "Winter's Tale" mystery novel and now with a Canadian TV series (three seasons, six episodes each) called "Slings and Arrows."

My friend Ron introduced me to "Slings and Arrows," which concerns the crazy backstage happenings at a fictional (and quite dysfunctional) Canadian Shakespeare festival that seems to be based on the Stratford Festival. After the first episode, I was completely smitten. The series is funny, fast and brimming over with outrageous theater people as well as inside info on how art and commerce battle it out. It benefits from terrific performances from Paul Gross (famous for "Due North" and the short-lived TV version of "The Witches of Eastwick") as Geoffrey Tennant, a talented director and actor who is dragged back to this "New Burbage Festival" even though he is madder than a hatter (and madder than Hamlet, regardless of hawks and handsaws); Gross's real-life wife Martha Burns as his former love and leading lady who is still hanging around New Burbage, now playing Gertrude instead of Ophelia; Stratford Festival regular Stephen Ouimette as Oliver Welles, the artistic director who once betrayed Geoffrey and sold out his art; and Mark McKinney, one of the Kids in the Hall, as bean-counter Richard Smith-Jones, whose secret love is "Mamma Mia" instead of "Much Ado."

"Hamlet" is the focus of the first season, as Oliver gets drunk and gets hit by a truck, Geoffrey is lured back to New Burbage to replace him and direct the same play that drove him crazy years ago AND contend with an untested and unsure Hollywood star playing Hamlet, a la Keanu Reeves, all while Oliver keeps haunting Geoffrey at every turn, not unlike Hamlet's dad in the play. Oh, and Geoffrey tries to figure out how to get Oliver's skull on-stage as Yorick. And there's a subplot involving Rachel McAdams as a New Burbage newbie; she took this "Slings and Arrows" role just before she broke out in "The Notebook."

Season Two has "Macbeth" as its main play, with Geraint Wyn Davies ('Forever Knight') as an ambitious leading actor with ego issues. There's a little "Romeo and Juliet" on the side, as directed by an avant garde doofus. (Don McKellar, part of the team behind "The Drowsy Chaperone," shows up as that doofus, Darren Nichols, every season.) Off-stage, Ellen (Martha Burns) has tax troubles and Richard (Mark McKinney) gets involved with a new marketing initiative helmed by Colm Feore as a New Age nutball named Sanjay.

And Season Three moves on to "King Lear," as a legendary actor (played by legendary Canadian actor William Hutt, who spent 39 years at Stratford) comes out of retirement to play the role, and a beautiful newcomer (played by Sarah Polley) as his Cordelia. Meanwhile, Geoffrey is acting crazier than ever, Geoffrey and Ellen struggle to make their relationship work, and Richard Smith-Jones finally gets a musical in the line-up.

I am happy to tell you that all three seasons are on DVD (as you can see by the "complete collection" box above), making them easily accessible. So far, I have shared the "Slings and Arrows" experience with quite a few friends, and they've all loved it, too.

Revisiting the episodes has made me love this series even more. Season One is the best, no question, with Paul Gross at his best as whacked-out Geoffrey, Rachel McAdams absolutely lovely as Ophelia and Luke Kirby spot-on as the wannabe Hamlet, but the other two have their joys, as well. All along the way, there's plenty of madness and outrageous fortune to spread around.

If only we could get another season. After all, there's Much Ado and Tempest and Othello and plenty of other Shakespeare with issues for Geoffrey & Co. to explore.

I just can't recommend "Slings and Arrows" highly enough. If you like Shakespeare, if you've ever hung out with crazy theater people, if you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at summer rep... "Slings and Arrows" is for you.


  1. I know I would love this, and my actor friend Myron (from the Free Shakespeare Company!) has been telling me about it for years! Glad to hear your report.

  2. Right on, Julie. This is just a wonderful series for anybody at all interested in theater and Shakespeare.

    I saw Stephen Ouimette onstage a few years ago, at Chicago Shakespeare, as Thersites in "Troilus." Always a kick to encounter actors in such contrasting roles.

  3. I know Ouimette was in La Bete on Broadway last year, and he's back at Stratford in The Homecoming and Twelfth Night (with Brian Dennehy as Toby Belch) this season. Also at Stratford? Geraint Wyn Davies and a different Hutt (Peter). I wonder if he's related to William Hutt.

  4. According to this article on William Hutt's funeral

    Peter Hutt is his nephew.

    I find myself thinking that having traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon and various summer opera festivals, I really should get myself to Stratford Ontario. I know a fair amount about its history, and it's ridiculous that I've never been there.

  5. I've thought the same thing about myself! I know less about its history than you do, I feel sure, but I still find it odd I've never been.

    Clearly we need to schedule a trip!

  6. I should report that I've now acquired the complete DVD set (I'd never seen the third series at all) and watched it all. What a pleasure.

    I was a little surprised that Mark McKinney was given the ending he was, though I suppose it fits. But everyone else had a nice finish. And William Hutt certainly showed his magnificence in the bits of Lear we saw, didn't he?

    Maybe sometime in this blog we can have a post and discussion sharing our opinions of various filmed and video Shakespeare. We do seem to touch on that from time to time.

  7. I am very sure you know a lot more filmed and video Shakespeares than I do!

    And I honestly don't remember what happened to "Big Dick" at the end of the series. I remember what happens with Charles, with Sarah Polley's character, with Geoffrey and Ellen and Anna. But not Richard. Hmmm...I find that ending very hard to watch, honestly. Partly because of Charles (and because this was William Hutt's last role, meaning it's a little too true to life), but also because of what transpires with Geoffrey and Oliver, and yes, Anna. It doesn't leave the New Burbage Festival in very good shape, does it?

    It's interesting that in some ways, the three seasons form a three-act play. End of Act I, the characters and situation is set and peace temporarily achieved. Act II throws new obstacles at our protagonist, but ends in seeming triumph. And then Act III pays off all of the plot threads (well, we never see what happens to the young lovers from I or II, but I'm guessing we're supposed to think they've all lived happily ever after) with a big occasion in which everyone gets together and there's even a song! With a hey nonny nonny. (Not really a hey nonny nonny, but you get the idea.) I guess the third episode ends more sadly than the others, but it's a heartfelt sadness, bittersweet and satisfying.

    I think I need to watch the ending again to see what becomes of Big Dick. (I would also like follow-up on Sanjay. And the New Burbage Festival itself, given the final joke re: Artistic Director. Perhaps Oliver needs to keep haunting the place till they get it right.)

  8. I can't be sure, but I suspect that no more happens to "Big Dick" than you remember. He stays at the festival, again the anything-for-a-buck company man that he was at the beginning. It's just that, as Anna tells him in the speech that gets her fired, he "almost made it" as a human being, and then regressed. I was hoping he'd make it all the way, but this way is more realistic for this kind of situation.

    As you know, I tell people apart mostly by hair! So I really wish Ellen and Anna had been given more difference in that department; the color and cut was very similar to my eyes.

    Do you think that Ellen's words urging Rachel McAdams to follow the movie star to LA fit the character & situation, or were they forced on the writers by the fact that the real actress wasn't going to be coming back (to television)? I must say, if she had continued I don't see how she could have fit into the Juliet shenanigans of Series 2.