I've just started to discover the joys of the very witty Canadian show Slings and Arrows, about the actors who make up a provincial Shakespearean theatre festival. After three episodes, I'm definitely hooked. The series, which aired between 2003 and 2006, has a great ensemble cast. It's a thoughtful, tender look at backstage life by people who obviously know and love the theatre.
I first heard about the show when I was listening to Bob Martin, Broadway's original Man in Chair from the musical The Drowsy Chaperone, on the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. Martin was also one of the creators of Slings and Arrows, and appears in the show, as does Don McKellar, with whom he co-wrote the Tony-winning book for The Drowsy Chaperone.
And then Roxie at Stage Left, House Right gushed about the series. Jan, at Broadway & Me, has also raved about it. What more more do I need? Since I'm at a lull in my theatergoing, it's a perfect time to watch.
The theatre company in Slings and Arrows, the New Burbage Festival, is loosely modeled on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. While I'm sure the somewhat wacky, quirky characters at New Burbage bear absolutely no resemblance to the fine thespians at Stratford, I'm guessing some of the themes and plot lines are drawn from real life, and that's a large part of what makes the series so interesting.
There's the unstable former actor (Paul Gross) called upon to come back and lead the company after suffering a nervous breakdown on stage years earlier; the diva (Martha Burns) with whom he was once romantically involved; the troupe's former, jaded artistic director (Stephen Ouimette), whose ghostly presence is a constant source of unwanted advice; the adorable, eager apprentice actress (Rachel McAdams); the hunky Hollywood star (Luke Kirby) hired in the hopes that his name will sell tickets; and the business manager (Mark McKinney) who's trying to keep the festival's corporate sponsor happy.
The characters are just extreme enough to be funny, but there's enough of a ring of truth to make them believable. They're all likable and sympathetic. Well, mostly. The plot line about the Hollywood star, for example, is supposedly based on Keanu Reeves being hired to play Hamlet in at the Manitoba Theatre Center in 1995.
You definitely get a sense watching the show of the constant tug between artistic freedom and commercial success, of the need to put on productions that people will actually want to come see. (McKellar plays a very avant-garde director who wants the audience in his production of Hamlet to really see, hear and smell that there's something rotten in Denmark).
At one point, McKinney's business manager is taken to Toronto to see a production of Mamma Mia and he's thrilled that at last, there's a show he can understand! No special knowledge, however, is necessary to understand this show. Just sit back and enjoy.