Reviewed by David Spencer
The best endorsement I can give Slings & Arrows, the comedic Canadian-made TV series about the mostly-offstage conflicts, collaborations and intrigues at a Stratford-like Shakespeare Theatre Festival (the fictional New Burbage), is that, when I knew the lady in my life would love it too, I watched my first season screener DVDs again, just to clock her joy in it. All six episodes. Not much more than a week after I screened them in the off-hours, while I was up in Washington state with The Fabulist. When you're busy (even when you're not), six TV hours devoted to one show is a lot of time to pack into a crowded week, and to repeat the experience is hardly a sane approach to time-efficiency. But Slings & Arrows is that compulsive.
And of course, in the re-watching, I got to more accurately memorize a few favorite passages, catch connections, motives and flourishes I missed the first time, and just generally note with renewed awe that anything so theatre-savvy, and yet so compelling to the casual viewer, could come out of fictional series television’Äînetwork, cable, Canadian, American or otherwise.
Now that it's been playing a few weeks, I'll chance a few early episode spoilers, so the uninitiated can catch up.
We start with Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross). Stuck directing in an off-off-Broadway style theatre that is underfunded and about to be closed down by its landlord. He turns saving it into a media circus, getting very publicly escorted away by the police in the process. Geoffrey, it should be noted here, is a genius, cutting an impressively broody figure in the long black, cape-like cloth coat he always seems to wear. Indeed, he's a former stage star. What the hell is he doing working in a relative pit? Well...he's quite mad. Or was. A number of years ago, during the third performance of what would have been an even more legendary Hamlet than it already was, he jumped into a trap-door "grave" and left the theatre, never to return. This was the last Hamlet staged at the New Burbage. Its director was Oliver Welles.
Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is now the artistic director at New Burbage. The place is coasting, Oliver's vision and passion having given way to the needs of being a play-it-safe panderer to conservative tastes. He has never really gotten over Hamlet either, in his way. And secretly feels he could never top it. This phone-it-in ennui is likewise affecting New Burbage Leading Lady, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns)’Äîwho was, by the way, at the heart of the Hamlet whirlwind, having been lover to Tennant as well as Ophelia to his Prince of Denmark.
Business manager Richard Smith-Jones (script co-author Mark McKinney) is meanwhile trying to keep corporate sponsorship in place and happy’Äîsuddenly finding that his biggest sponsor has assigned a new executive to work with him, the unscrupulous Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) whose approach is not merely populist, but downright theme-parkish. And she's not above seducing Richard to make it manifest.
After a lackluster opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a despondent Oliver gets drunk and collapses in the road. He never sees nor feels the truck of Prime Hams that hits him.
His untimely demise leaves the New Burbage in need of a new, at least an interim, artistic director. Geoffrey Tennant doesn't really want the job, but recently Oliver has begun to haunt him’Äîoh, yes, just like Hamlet's father, Oliver returns as the ghost-mentor (only he's much more quippy fun and he sticks around for the long haul)’Äîso Geoffrey, trying to hold onto his precarious sanity, relents. And what is the first project Geoffrey is charged with shepherding along?
Why, Hamlet, of course. This time headlining young, American action movie star Jack Crew (Luke Kirby) who has never before, in any meaningful sense, been onstage.
The pieces are in place for total disaster. And things get worse before they get better, Whoops: did I say they get better? Is that an end spoiler?
No, not really. Slings & Arrows is, after all, a comedy, and not a black comedy either. But like most great comedy, it has its well of darkness, and maneuvers in the shoals of pain, loss, complication and unforeseen circumstance’Äîbecause what's funny is watching these eccentric people you quickly care about try to work their way through it all; or come to grips with it; or whatever it is they do to find reclamation, redemption, validation or just plain love.
As scripted by the aforementioned Mr. McKinney with Susan Coyne and Bob Martin, both of whom also play roles in the show, Slings & Arrows crackles with genuine, literate wit. Here's one of its more famous exchanges. Oliver's will has stipulated that before cremation, his head is to be separated from his body, stripped and cleaned to the bone, and used thereafter in any New Burbage production of Hamlet during the Yorick scene. The skull sits on Geoffrey's desk. His executive assistant Anna Conroy (Ms. Coyne) enters his office and after initial shock ("Is that him?") asks if she can hold the skull. Geoffrey assures her that Oliver would have wanted that, so she lifts the prop-to-be with equal parts revulsion and fascination. An odd smile starts to dance across her lips and she remarks: "It's not very heavy at all, is it?" Geoffrey's nonchalant reply: "It's much lighter without the ego."
It's not merely wordplay that distinguishes the dialogue. The talk about the crafts of acting, directing, stage managing is utterly authentic, there's none of the phony "show talk" you hear in movies written by outsiders; and the discussions about business matters’Äîthe way in which commerce butts heads with art’Äîare just as bracingly accurate.
The plotting is as witty as the dialogue (some of the story turns are, themselves, sly glosses on Shakespearean conventions), and the performances bringing it all home are, most of them, iconic. As Geoffrey Tennant, Paul Gross is the polar opposite of this Mountie character in Due South’Äîshaggy, volatile, irreverent, always on the edge (it goes totally unremarked, but he plays a key Board Meeting scene deftly sucking on a razor blade, popping it in an out on his tongue as if it's a hard stick of gum.) And if one must be haunted by a ghost, may it always be one as pithy, candid and entertaining as Stephen Ouimette's Oliver, who puts fun and lovability into elitist snobbery. I must admit to feeling that Martha Burns is not quite up to the perfect, role-owning definition of her co-stars. Hers is a perfectly lovely performance in some ways, but I never entirely buy her as having the fire and charisma of a brilliant Shakespearean (whereas Mr. Gross’Äîher husband in real-life, by the way’Äîputs that across with no discernible effort); though she is certainly an energized presence. Rachael McAdams is delightful as a young actress on the rise, Don McKellar is riotously on-target as a fatuous director whose m_tier is gimmickry, Mr. McKinney as the hapless administrator manages to make frightened mediocrity memorable (it's the character's mediocrity, of course, and McKinney plays it brilliantly and fearlessly)’Äîand as the ironically named Holly Day, Jennifer Irwin demonstrates that evil's famed banality is as nothing compared to its perkiness.
Directed by Peter Wellington with a sure hand for the performers, deft pace for the story and flawless composition for the camera, Slings & Arrows is one of those rare TV series that lets you know, from the first shot, that not only are you in for a great ride, but an utterly unique one. So tune in. And I promise you, the outrageous fortune’Äîin the best sense’Äîwill be all yours...