December 17th, 2007

Cylons = gods

Slings and Arrows? More Like Kings and Sparrows!

Last year, out of nowhere, everyone I knew suddenly started talking about this show called Slings and Arrows. And by everyone I mostly mean Buffistas. But it wasn't just them! Unconnected members of my flist were recommending the show! So I decided I would check it out...eventually. Once the third and final season aired, there was a resurgence of interest, and I decided I would check it out...eventually.

Finally, eventually has come, and I have seen and loved Slings and Arrows, a Canadian comic drama comprising a mere three seasons of six episodes each. It won't take up too much of your time once I convince you to watch!

But what is it about? As you may guess from the title, it's about Shakespeare! Or, rather, Shakespearean theatre at the New Burbage Festival (obviously modeled after the Stratford Festival). The three seasons deal with productions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, respectively, although subplots involve other productions.

But who are the dramatis personae? Well, there's Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross of Due South fame), the once-brilliant actor who goes from running a failing independent theatre company to becoming Artistic Director of the New Burbage Festival when his old director and mentor, Oliver Welles, vacates the position (although he continues to advise Geoffrey, much to his consternation). Ellen Fanshaw is Geoffrey's former lover, now an aging actress prone to dalliances with younger men. Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame) is the Business Manager, responsible for making sure the festival actually makes money. And then there's Anna Conroy, the administrator who makes sure everything doesn't just fucking fall apart. The last two actors are also two of the three writers for the series; like Spaced, the creators wrote every episode, and also like Spaced, given all the connections between the actors, it's clearly a labor of love, a show made by people who wanted to make this show because they could.

I think that anyone who has done any theatre before would love this show because it gets it all right. The cast members hooking up, the constant tension, the dynamics different actors bring to the cast, the madness before opening night, the magic that happens onstage, etc. There's even a frazzled stage manager and an old singing gay couple. Everyone in the company feels like a real character, just from the little bits and pieces we see of them; it's a great ensemble.

I've never done any professional theatre, so it was interesting to get a glimpse inside that world, where it's a job and they can have rehearsals during the day! And it's also a business, so you get into all sorts of fun conundrums of business sense vs. artistic integrity.

I found the first season to be the weakest, actually, since they spent so much time setting up the damn series there was little time for a disastrous production of a play, which is what I signed up for! The second and third seasons impressed me more, as they allowed the characters to develop (and I hadn't actually expected to care about the characters and their development until I saw it in action!). They explored why they were who they were and took them on journeys. They delved a little more into the nature of theatre (while using Darren Nichols, a pretentious twat, to satirize it at the same time). And, always, as you might expect, the play itself was used to great effect to mirror the action and highlight certain character traits and plot points (and sometimes other Shakespearean works find their way into the story: the Hamlet season has a subplot with subtle undertones of Macbeth that become hilariously textual in the finale).

The comedy is very understated for the most part. Scenes will often end with the punchline on a downbeat, so you barely even realize there was a joke for a second, and then you get it and crack up. And Wikipedia calls the series "blackly comic," to give you an idea of the sort of humor you're in for.

Lastly, a note on casting. You get Rachel McAdams! Sarah Polley! Don McKellar! Geraint Wyn Davies! Okay, I didn't really know who he was, but he starred in Forever Knight, so I guess he's famous.

Most of all, what I loved was that the show was always a testament to—and I hate to sound like a pretentious twat—the transformative power of theatre. It's what Geoffrey believes in: he believes in the play. And it's wonderful to see what happens to both the audience and the actors when you put on a great play properly. It's like that line in Sports Night: "I didn't know we could do that." And that's what Slings and Arrows does: it shows that we can do that.