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DVD Review: Slings & Arrows – The Complete Collection

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A seemingly ill-conceived festival re-branding campaign in season two of the three-season behind-the-scenes theater series Slings & Arrows uses lines from bad reviews to connect with a new audience. One such review reads “…theater has never made television looks so good.” Well, in the case of this Canadian TV import, I can honestly say television has never made theater look so good.

I first discovered Slings & Arrows during the non-stop coverage of The Sopranos finale. TV critics on NPR were debating, prematurely, whether the HBO mob saga was the best show in the history of television… ever. One critic chimed in on his love of the show Slings & Arrows, calling it the best show he had ever watched.

As a viewer who has taken in the series Slings & Arrows twice in its entirety, I'd have to say the critic wasn't far off. The show about the fictional New Burbage Theatre Festival (based loosely on Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival) is the best combination of Aaron Sorkin and Alan Ball, two people who have made what are arguably the best modern TV dramas, The West Wing and Six Feet Under, respectively.

With Slings & Arrows, we get Sorkin's behind-the-scenes look at theatrical productions of Shakespeare's classics featuring an idealized version of a festival's artistic director in Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross). Tennant is an eccentric artist who believes in the power of the theater. He takes over for former friend/mentor/enemy Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), who – and here's where the dark comedy of one Alan Ball comes in – dies after a ham truck runs him over.

At the time of his death, Welles was, as the local theater critic puts it, going through the motions. The shows were stale, but profitable, something the bean-counting festival director Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney) didn't mind one bit. Upon Welles's death, Smith-Jones, at the urging of an American business executive with ties to the festival's major corporate sponsor, Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), begins to develop major Disney World-type improvements to the festival. That is until the board appoints artiste Tennant as interim artistic director.

The Diana Christensen-esque Day competes with Tennant for the direction of the festival. Is great theater enough to fill the seats? Does the festival need to be more business-minded? That's a major struggle in the above described first season, as well as the macro conflict of the show's three-season run.

The more character-driven portion of the narrative follows Tennant's attempt to work with his former lover and festival star Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns). Tennant once went mad in the middle of a performance of Hamlet because of Ellen's liaison with none other than the gay Welles. Everyone questions Tennant's sanity, but no one more than himself because he has regular conversations with Welles's ghost.

The ghost of Welles, a witch-like but prescient old donor, a dying old actor among many other intentional idiosyncrasies ensure that each season mirrors ever so slightly the Shakespearean production that Tennant is charged with putting on. The show, however, is at its best when dealing directly with the productions, allowing some of the finest working theater actors in Canada to take on classical roles with often towering intensity. Stars well known to American audiences like Rachel McAdams and Sarah Polley give performances you hardly expect if you've only seen them in their commercial film work.

There are many great performances in the show, but I love one particular performance in season two. Prior to a preview for the show Macbeth, the lead Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies), an arrogant, complacent stage legend, is fired. He and Tennant don't see eye to eye (and Welles's ghost is siding with Breedlove!). The show goes on with Breedlove's unprepared understudy Jerry (Oliver Dennis) in the role of Macbeth. In this great, almost episodic program Jerry has his chance to rise up and create for a few brief moments an effective, if unusual Macbeth. It's an exceptional moment for Jerry, a bit part if there ever was one, but it also shows that the show is so solid that it can go on slight tangents without losing sight of the bigger picture. The episode that follows is near perfection.

Much of the series is at the level of that episode that follows Jerry's turn. It's a show that runs hard and runs fast, but fades out quickly. It's a sprinter of a series, with only 18 episodes in total, short of even a single season run for most broadcast television shows. The greatest delight is watching Slings & Arrows burn the candle at both ends. While it's burning it gives such a lovely light. I can't imagine the show ever holding up a longer run. Slings & Arrows, after all, is a show about theater, and the playwrights and actors who created it aren't writing a love letter. They've written a Dear John letter to the theater that has risen. It's evident in the constant lampooning of the corporatization of the medium, the ludicrous marketing campaigns, and a musical takeover of the festival. In the end, Slings & Arrows could be classified as a problem teleplay, if only because for every bit of comedy the show chronicles the grand tragedies of modern theater.

Don't miss these DVD features:

  • Extended performance scenes
  • Lyrics for the each season's opening song
  • A bonus disc with some very raw behind-the-scenes documentaries

Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection DVD set is available February 5, 2008.

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About Daniel J. Stasiewski