Sunday, September 6, 2009

Slings & Arrows

This Canadian fantasy ran three season. In the first season, a US action star comes to a Canadian theater to play Hamlet. The artistic director is inadvertently run over by a bacon truck. His ghost haunts his ex-protege, who had a nervous breakdown years previously while playing Hamlet, partly because Oliver slept with Geoffrey's girlfriend Ellen (Ophelia naturally,) despite Oliver being gay. The eccentric board president persuades the board to reinstate the flake, who, seeing the ghost, is flakier than ever. Well, except for attacking the swans.

This is inspired by the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario (renamed the New Burbage here,) and Keanu Reeves' turn as Hamlet in Minnesota or some such. Rachel McAdams plays the Ophelia. Despite much intrigue, including sabotage by a US board member who seduces the executive director, Keanu turns in a sound performance, vindicating the crazed director.

In the second season, Geoffrey stages Macbeth, using notes from Oliver. Geraint Wyn Davies, of Forever Knight fame if I remember correctly, plays Mackers as they like to call him. The executive director, played by Mark McKinney one of the main writers (another Susan Coyne, is also in the cast, as admistrative assistant Anna,) rebrands the theater festival to get a loan from the foulmouthed minister of culture. Naturally he hires Colm Feore. Despite Colm ending up in jail, the PR campaign is a huge success. The Macbeth is even huger, ending up on Broadway at the beginning of the third season.

The third season has Lear. The gag here is that the actor chosen by Geoffrey (played by William Hutt, apparently a highly respected actor in Canada who has in fact played Lear,) has cancer. And he's taking heroin for the pain. Geoffrey at this point begins therapy with an Episcopal priest. The whole scheme comes unraveled. Geoffrey is fired, but the cast puts on Lear in the priest's church to satisfy a dying man's dream of playing Lear. Anna loses her job for this. The executive director, who almost became likable, hires a dreadful director precisely to increase his own power, to put on musicals. He plans to do the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein oeuvre. The dying actor has also been able to see Oliver, having one foot in the grave. Geoffrey and Ellen get married and move to Montreal. The end.

As is usual, the first instalment is by far the best. Serialization is almost never successful in artistic terms. As should be obvious, there is a great deal of farce about seeing ghosts. Backstage humor and fraught love affairs supply much entertainment of a lighter sort. There are even delightful songs by the elderly gay couple in the cast. There too, the first season one is the best. I gather the people behind this series managed to produce a successful Canadian musical. The only one?

There is one thing quite serious about the show, which is its interest in interpreting Shakespeare. When Geoffrey (played by Paul Gross,) is coaching "Keanu" he orders Keanu to decide whether Claudius and Polonius are listening to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. He says that the scene can be played either way but it should be played for one of them. In addition to incorporating actual discussion of interpretation into the script via Geoffrey, the various characters recite selections, sometimes as examples of bad readings, other times as show stoppers that compel the characters to listen and watch with reverence. Or at least appreciation.
If the selections were not well done or Geoffrey's interventions compelling, the show, despite its humor would fail. I think in the end the only thing I would change would be to stop announcing the Shakespeare selections that are suppose to awe us with a specific harp theme.

The first season is an outright jewel. But the whole thing is well worth watching. And they are only about six hours each, an astonishing example of suiting length to material, instead of the other way round. Highly recommended. I would sing O Canada if I could sing, or knew the lyrics.

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