Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Slings & Arrows

Everyone cries when they get stabbed. There’s no shame in that.”

Last night Lisa and I finished watching the first season of “Slings & Arrows” (courtesy of Netflix, of course).

We have become completely enthralled and delighted by this Canadian show about the ups and downs of backstage life and interior administrative drama of the fictional New Burbage Theater (based obviously on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival located outside Ontario). The show was co-created and stars Mark McKinney, from Kids in the Hall and SNL, as well as Bob Martin and Susan Coyne, the ones behind the Tony award winning The Drowsy Chaperone.

The premise is a simple play within a play, but the complexities of staging Shakespeare in this time of arts funding (do we sell out or remain true to our vision?) weave nicely into the melodramatic antics of the actors and director. Geoffrey Tennant (played by actor Paul Gross) reluctantly takes over the theater as Artistic Director after his mentor Oliver gets run over by a pork truck. Everyone questions Geoffrey’s sanity ever since he had a nervous breakdown seven years ago and walked offstage in the middle of their production of Hamlet. Coincidentally, the play about the Dane is also their heavy hitter they’re doing this year, as directed by a pyrotechnic maniac and post-Brechtian madman director. Geoffrey has to deal with not just that, but also his ex-flame is the diva Ellen, who plays Gertrude. There is also a subplot as Martin, the Executive Director, conspires with a vicious American woman on the Board of Directors, who want to revision the festival as a showcase for Broadway musicals. To make matters worse, the ghost of Oliver haunts Geoffrey throughout prodding him with advice and commentary about the state of affairs.

I love the show for several reasons, mainly because it illuminates many of the foibles of actors and performances, but does so in way that doesn’t mock the process or belittle it. The actors here are not just insecure babies (well, some are) but are real people with hopes and dreams and some kind of substance (well, most have substance). Also, it doesn’t show merely the rehearsals and backstage stuff but also some of the administrative actions and office politics, ie the business side. Rarely do we see that onscreen, and if so, it’s never shown in such an understanding and developed way.

There’s an endearing scene when Geoffrey is asked to lead a corporate session on “Using Shakespeare as Management Models” or something like that, basically trying to teach corporate types leadership styles from the canon. Geoffrey tosses out the whole idea, saying, “you want to take leadership cues from people like Richard III and Julius Caesar?” Instead he teaches them acting and sees one or two of them really blossom and find a new love for Shakespeare. And that kind of idealism and hope is what our art is about.

I won’t divulge too much. I will say that the final show of the first series ends with a triumphant production of Hamlet, showing that even when all the odds are against us, sometimes we can still pull off brilliance. The show left me with hope and joy, and a renewed fervor for that old dramatist we call Shakespeare. I can’t wait to see more.

So to the show’s creators, writers, actors, and directors, I say: Bravo!

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