Monday, December 29, 2008

Slings & Arrows

Not since Northern Exposure can I recall a large-scale ensemble television series that handled so many complex elements so successfully and with such heart as Slings & Arrows.

Set in the fictional town of New Burbage, Canada, the series revolves around a large theatre company with a world famous festival, modeled on the world renowned Stradford Festival (which gets at least several nods in its direction throughout the series). But the New Burbage is very much it’s own baby and what a baby it is!

Without giving away too much, let me say this: The series gets going with a bang as Geoffrey, a former member of the company (and whose last performance, as Hamlet, featured his complete mental collapse), arrives for the funeral of Oliver, his sworn enemy, former friend and director, and until just days ago, the long time Artistic Director of the company, who was tragically killed in a highly comic manner. Still mentally unhinged (and working only as a director, following his onstage meltdown), Geoffrey is surprisingly voted in by the board as the Company’s new (interim) A.D.

In addition to dealing with former friends, he must face his former lover, the Company’s long time leading lady, Ellen, herself now worried about aging gracelessly into the roles of mothers and nurses. He’s got even bigger problems however, as he is singularly haunted by the ever present ghost of Oliver who still tries to control the company – and Geoffrey from beyond the grave. A device that could in lesser hands become contrived and tiresome is here handled with such aplomb, skilful writing and an absolutely delicious, tour-de-force performance by the absolutely brilliant Stephen Ouimette who would have me in stitches one moment, and in tears the next. In addition to the ever changing elements of three seasons filled with raucous goings on, the major productions and cast changes, etc., one of the most important elements of the show is the coming to terms of love, loss, aging, forgiveness and acceptance – with Geoffrey and Oliver two sides of the same coin. Even more than the rekindling of romance between the leading couple, this relationship, nearly more than any other, defines “Slings & Arrows.”

All of that would be fine enough, but in addition we get crisp, smart writing and plot lines as we’re introduced to dozens of characters who make up the New Burbage Festival. Former Kids in the Hall star Mark McKinney, is one of the creators and writers – as well as stars – of the show and he is sensationally funny as every financial-type with aspirations and dreams of a career in the arts rolled into one, uptight, prickly mess.

Surprisingly (to me) my favorite character in the entire series became Anna, the Assistant Administrator who, nearly singlehandedly, holds the entire place together as the no-nonsense intermediary moving gracefully between the worlds of “talent and the business.” Always put upon, oft forgotten, treated shabbily by nearly all, Anna’s tenacity is a beautiful, life affirming portrait of the resiliency of the human spirit. It’s a terrific role and I wasn’t surprised to find that the actress playing her, Susan Coyne, is one of the creators and principal writers of the show. That’s probably how she gets some of the best lines of the entire series, including one that caused me to shoot beer out of my nose (a handy trick) “If you EVER try that again, I’ll slap you so hard your COUSIN will fall down!”

Every one of the series too short 18 episodes is an absolute gem, rich with black humor and covering a myriad of topical topics. We watch as the Festival deals with Eurotrash directors, marketing deals of death defying stupidity, the cultural dilemma of crossing over to newer audiences, dealing with the dying off of classical theatre attendance, professional jealousy, aging and death. Sandwiched deliciously in the middle of the three seasons is the (fairly) in-depth peak at producing a major Shakespearean play. Season 1 gives us Hamlet, Season 2, Macbeth, and Season 3 – King Lear. Each play beautifully points up the relevancy of the work to the goings on in every aspect of everyone’s lives.

My Christmas present to myself this year was watching the entire series in 3 days – each day a different series. I can hardly think of a group of folk I’d rather have spent that time with!

Slings & Arrows, Burbage Festival, Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Shakespeare Festival, Canadian television, black comedy, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Stephen Ouimette,

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