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Slings and Arrows


Rod Lott January 13th, 2011

 I'll be the first to admit I was skeptical about "Slings & Arrows," the critically acclaimed 2003-2006 Canadian series set amid a Shakespearean theater troupe.

It sounded all too ... well, precious. But by the time the first episode's initial minutes introduced the phrase "chilled German urine," I was hooked.

Paul Gross (best known to American audiences for the show "Due South") heads the self-absorbed folks of the New Burbage Theatre Festival as Geoffrey, who reluctantly returns to the company after going a bit crazy, literally, years ago during a production in which he acted opposite his then-girlfriend, Ellen (Martha Burns, Gross' real-life wife), and mentor, Oliver (Stephen Ouimette). He takes over the artistic director from Oliver, who's fatally run over, yet haunts Geoffrey.

In the first of three seasons, each numbering six sterling episodes, Geoffrey struggles with getting back into the groove as the company mounts a production of "Hamlet," while New Burbage manager Richard ("Kids in the Hall" alum Mark McKinney, who co-writes) schemes behind the scenes with a power-hungry sponsor (Jennifer Irwin, "Eastbound & Down") who seduces him to steer the board of directors her way.

Season two picks up immediately after the cast pulls off "Hamlet," despite all odds, leading Geoffrey to further tempt fate with Shakespeare's perhaps most challenging play, "Macbeth." Elsewhere in the theater's smaller space, a pretentious boor of a director (Don McKellar) plans a rather unique take on "Romeo and Juliet" that frustrates his actors to no end. Backstage, Richard deals with the harsh reality that the theater is bleeding money and unable to attract new sponsors, prompting him to seek help from a hip ad agency, Frog Hammer.

The final season finds the New Burbage crew on a financial and critical high that took them to a Broadway run. "King Lear" is next on their agenda, and filling the title role is local theater legend Charles Kingman (William Hutt), an old man whose lifelong dream it is to play this part. Geoffrey casts him, not realizing the poor guy is dying of cancer and addicted to heroin. Needless to say, this causes problems with the rest of the cast, who already are in bad moods over the slicker-than-snot production of an original, "Rent"-esque musical playing in the smaller space but garnering all the buzz.

"Slings" obviously is made by people with a love for theater, yet also pokes fun at the sheer pomposity of its denizens. This, after all, is a world where an uttering of "I once did an Arby's commercial" passes for foreplay (as stated by Rachel McAdams in the first season). But one need not hold season tickets to Lyric, nor have digested the entire, intimidating work of The Bard to enjoy the program. I don't fall into either group, and I laughed out loud ... a lot. It does help to give it a couple of hours to allow your brain to slip into its erudite tone.

At its root a comedy, "Slings" is not without its moments of drama, as what is the theater but an extended family — and a highly dysfunctional one at that! Although the cast is large, the writers take great care — whether across a season or the show in total — that each character is seen as a person, with his or her own conflict. There's nary a bad performance to be found, and Gross is its outlandish heart, the very key to its addictive nature.

Not by design, but each season features a guest ingenue now known to wider American audiences, with the aforementioned Adams in the first, "Warehouse 13" lead Joanne Kelly in the second, and "Splice" star Sarah Polley in the third.

I can't praise Acorn Media's six-disc Blu-ray set enough. From witty scripts and impeccable timing to, it should be noted, an appropriate filthy mouth, this is television at its very best. I devoured almost the whole of it in the span of three days, so the only negative I can affix to it is that it came to an end. Highly, highly recommended. —Rod Lott




 
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