Do you like Shakespeare? Do you like to laugh? Then the Canadian sitcom Slings & Arrows is for you. Winner of many top Gemini awards, Canada’s prestigious prize for English language television, Slings & Arrows follows a theatre troupe as they perform some of the Bard’s greatest works at the New Burbage Festival, a fictional event similar to the Stratford Festival. Over three seasons, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear are all dealt with in humorous fashion. The series focuses mainly on backstage antics, a la The West Wing, but with a much darker humor that should tickle any funny bone.
Geoffrey (Paul Gross, Due South, Men With Brooms) is the director at the center of the chaos, not that he isn’t responsible for much of it. His passion mixes with an unpredictable eccentricity that will keep viewers engaged. Gross does a fantastic job with the central role. Geoffrey’s behavior is not made any more stable by the haunting of his predecessor and mentor, Oliver (voice talent Stephen Ouimette), who is killed very early in the series, spurring the theatre to hire Geoffrey as his replacement. Not many shows are brave enough to have a ghost in the cast, but this one does, and it works splendidly.
Geoffrey has a real vision for what he’d like to see on stage. Unfortunately, not everyone shares his exact dream. General manager Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, The Kids in the Hall, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip) is an obstacle, as he would rather listen to the allure of advertising money in the form of first Holly (Jennifer Irwin, Eastbound & Down), then Sanjay (Colm Feore, The Borgias, 24), than maintain quality, at least sometimes. It also doesn’t help Geoffrey that his first lead is an American movie star (Luke Kirby, Cra$h & Burn), rather than a trained stage thespian. Both are signs of a declining theatre world, but an industry that will Geoffrey will be lost without.
Making the mix even more convoluted is that actress, and former lover of Geoffrey, Ellen (Martha Burns, Screening), is part of the company, and dating a younger man. So not only are there the technical aspects to worry about, but poor Geoffrey is plagued by pesky emotions as well. Their story begins well before Sling & Arrows, when they were co-stars in Hamlet. Ellen slept with Oliver, who is gay, and Geoffrey went off the deep end, upset over the betrayal. Brought back together by circumstance, they make it work. The chemistry between Burns and Gross make every interaction engaging.
The principal cast are all wonderful, and their ability to actually perform Shakespeare, as well as sitcom comedy, is astounding. They are supported by guest stars like Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes, The Notebook), Sarah Polley (John Adams), and William Hutt, an actual respected Shakespearean actor who died shortly after this performance.
The special features on the seven disc complete collection, which contains all three seasons, include bloopers, deleted scenes, productions notes, photo galleries, cast interviews, trailers, and song lyrics. There is also a featurette going behind the scenes, and plenty of on-set footage. It’s really quite a nice package of extras for such a short-lived series.
Slings & Arrows is also available on Blu-ray, though I have not had the opportunity to check out that collection. I suggest buying Slings & Arrows immediately, available from Acorn Media.