The first season of Slings and Arrows, 6 episodes produced in 2003, was played repeatedly – mainly on Showcase I think – last winter and spring, and a second season has started on Movie Central in Canada. I think the fourth episode airs tonight.
It’s a Canadian production, starring Paul Gross, who played the Mountie in Due South. It was features several good Canadian actors. A few of the actors seem to making waves in American cinema, like Rachel McAdams, most of them are veterans of the stage and independent Canadian cinema.
The story is set at a fictious theater festival, in a smaller rural centre in Ontario, which is mainly dedicated to producing Shakespeare’s plays. The New Burbridge is of course modelled on Stratford. In the opening episodes of Season One, they are starting production of Hamlet. Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), an American film star has been cast in the leading role – which reminds theatre fans across Canada of the time Keanu Reeves played Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. Higly visible production, brought patrons to the show but not to their feet. The director, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is an aging, burned out, angry, alcoholic facing a job that has become overwhelming. He is managing the festival, dealing with corporate partners, government arts bureaucracies and the festival management while directing Hamlet. He has cast a charismatic but untried Hamlet, and a terrible Ophelia. He remembers directing Geoffrey Tennant (Gross) and Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) in an illfated Hamlet that ended when Tennant cracked and had a breakdown. Fanshaw is still with the company, an aging diva, a cougar dallying with young men, playing Gertrude in the current show. Welles sees Tennant on the TV news and tries to reach Tennant, who has survived psychosis and is involved in alternative theater in Toronto. Tennant wants nothing to do with him.
Welles manages to pass out drunk in the middle of the road, and to get run over by a semi hauling hogs to the slaughterhouse. His death brings Tennant back to the festival as interim artistic director, and reunites Tennant and Welles. Welles appears to Tennant as a ghost, and Tennant, is prone to converse with him, loudly and publicly. Tennant has been set up for failure by the mildly conniving business manager of the festival, the delightfully nerdy Richard Smith-Jones, (Kids in the Hall alumnus Mark McKinney). Smith-Jones has been seduced by corporate sponsor vamp Holly Day, who plans to convert the festival into a festival of the greatest London and Broadway musicals. Jennifer Irwin plays her as a wildly narcissistic, conniving, sexually predatory corporate climber.
Tennant not fail. He tries to get out of directing Hamlet but can’t. He beomes enraged at another director, played by Don McKellar, a postmodern gay fop for taking liberties with the text and chases him off with a sword. Early in his run, he takes a charge of one of the festival’s corporate leadership seminar in which he is required to direct corporate executives. He inspire a wonderful, almost definitive performance out of a tired salesman, which set the scene for a series of wonderful scenes in which Tennant sees into his actors to find what it takes to get them to play their parts. He feuds with Fanshaw, once a lover in real life over her attitude and mocks her for sleeping with a dumb, handsome young man. He manages to get her focussed, to bring some energy into her performance as the needy, aging, drifting sexual creature that was Hamlet’s mother. There is also a marvellous scene in which they visit the night of Geoffrey’s breakdown and look at their lives and their love of the theatre (in real life Gross and Burns are married to each other), and accept themselves as mature performers.
Gross gets the room and lines to act as well as I have seen him. The scenes work – we have seen these people in real life, and now we see them becoming and being the persons in the text – not the narrators of lines but persons. We see how it can work. Welles manages to get rid of the bad Ophelia, clearing the way for ingenue Kate McNab (McAdams) to be cast as Ophelia. In real life, she has fallen for Crew, and they strike sparks on stage. Writers Coyne and Martin show us how it works by having the nerdy Smith-Jones mesmerized in the wings – a joke about the business manager who has never seen live theatre turning into a commentary on the power of live drama.
The first season ends with a pompous aging actor, evidently Polonius in Hamlet, telling off the presumptively departing Tennant, and Kate, having been cast as Juliet in the next season, deciding whether to follow Crew to Hollywood. Tennant stays on, and is able to announce that the pompous old actor will not play MacBeth, as he might have wished.
The writers – Susan Coyne and Bob Martin – are veterans of Canadian stage and screen drama. The story is well-grounded in the reality of Canadian production, with many knowing comments about the politics of arts funding and corporate sponsorships. More than that, they know theater and they are able to write about the problems of staging Shakespeare, with some great stories about great and disastrous interpretations of the bard’s work. The shows shines as it goes through the cycle of rehearsals, romances, pub crawls and parties as the cast move through the dramas of their own lives. The core cast is a great ensemble, and other great actors like Eric Peterson and Don McKellar get great cameo and guest roles. Everyone seems to be having fun. The writers are giving everyone something to work with, and it just looks good. It is in its worst moments only witty, stylish and entertaining. And there are moments of magic.