Saturday, May 18, 2013

Everyone Cries When They're Stabbed

So, I just spent the better part of the last view days mainlining the Canadian gem of a show, Slings & Arrows, to the detriment of all else. Yes, yes, the first season is ten years old, but if you missed it the first time it aired on Sundance, the entire series is back on Netflix streaming. I am an uber geek and I own a box set, but if you, unlike me, spend your money on things like food, rent and bills, you can also get it on DVD from same. 

Slings & Arrows, people. OMG. Where to begin.

Slings & Arrows is a cynical behind-the-scenes look at the goings-on of The Stratford Festival  a fictitious Canadian Shakespeare festival in the equally fictitious New Burbage, Ontario. No one can ignore the fact that the show is mocking the famous and successful mecca of North American theater. However, most of the actors and writers on the show are Stratford vets themselves. Uber hottie Paul Gross portrays Geoffrey Tennant (no relation to David), the unstable yet brilliant artistic director of the New Burbage Festival, who fights the good fight against forces that would destroy good theater: apathy, pretension, commercialization, mass marketing, cynicism, corporate interference, cliche, musicals and Darren Nichols.

If you want to say something to the proletariat, just cover it in sequins and make it sing.

Geoffrey is given the job as artistic director after his former friend and mentor, Oliver Welles (Stratford mainstay Stephen Ouimette), is killed after he falls into the road drunk and is hit by a pig truck.

But not to worry, Oliver's ghost appears to Geoffrey after his death to guide him as he directs, and only Geoffrey can see him, lending more credence to everyone's belief that Geoffrey is insane. Before Oliver's death, Geoffrey hadn't seen Oliver in over seven years after Geoffrey walked off stage during an apparently incandescent production of Hamlet, which Oliver directed. Geoffrey had a mental breakdown and left, and Oliver lost his edge and began staging trite, predictable productions which relied on special effects and big-name stars as draws, rather than relying on honest productions with a core group of solid, gifted actors. Further complicating things is the fact that Geoffrey's former love, Ellen Fanshaw (Stratford and Shaw Festival vet Martha Burns), is still at the festival, but she's getting older, thus is playing Gertrude and boinking men half her age in a desperate attempt to feel young again.

Each season, the show focuses on one main production of a Shakespearean play, and OMG we get to watch brilliant acting not only from the cast, but also from the "company" of players when the productions are ready for previews and performance. Although they can't show one or two entire Shakespearean plays during the performance episodes, we do get to see scenes from these productions, which are no less magical on teevee than I'm sure they would be in real life.

The show was written by Susan Coyne, Bob Martin and Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame, who also stars as starched-shirt managing director, Richard Smith-Jones. 

The first season focuses on Hamlet, and stars Rachel McAdams as Kate/Ophelia. If you can watch her turn as Ophelia and not get chills, then you my friend, are dead inside. DEAD. DEAD LIKE YOU'VE BEEN HIT BY A PIG TRUCK.

 You mean after this I'm going to make The Notebook?

The second season features The Scottish Tragedy and Romeo and Juliet, and the third features a hysterically bad original musical and King Lear. I can't even begin to talk about how good this show is, and if you like theater, black comedy and good TV, you must get all over this forthwith. The acting is phenomenal and the writing is sharp-witted and wickedly funny. I just love Canadians. Even when they say "fuck" every other word or are supposed to be drunk or partying, they are SO ADORABLY DORKY. 

Fabulous Canadians appearing on S&A:  writer, actor and filmmaker Don McKellar as the uproariously pretentious Darren Nichols; actress, writer, director Sarah Polley as Cordelia/Sophie (her father, Michael Polley, appears in each episode as well); actor and erstwhile Gilbert Blythe, Jonathan Crombie, as Geoffrey's understudy in Season 1 and Lionel Train (yes) in Season 2; Warehouse 13 star Joanne Kelly as Sarah/Juliet; the late William Hutt as Charles Kingman/Lear and the late Jackie Burroughs (Aunt Hetty on Road to Avonlea) in a minor but effective role during Season 2. 

Unlike some other shows about theater which I won't mention that try to push their preachy, phony agenda upon the masses, Slings & Arrows takes the stand that good theater does not have to be dumbed down to be appealing to the masses. It carries the message that overwrought, overly thought-out and (dare I say it) overly theoretical productions are not good theater; they are simply dishonest interpretations that are more about the director and his/her enormous ego than anything else. In Geoffrey Tennant's mind, the play is the thing.

There are only three seasons, but the story feels very complete when you finally finish the last episode. Slings & Arrows doesn't take on social problems and try to correct them in "a very special episode" and that's what makes is so true and so goddamn fucking honest. It says within the tiny world of the New Burbage Festival and struts and frets its hour upon the stage with stunning brilliance.

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