Canadian Import 'Slings & Arrows': The Soul of Wit

Clockwise from left, Martha Burns, Paul Gross, William Hutt, Janet Bailey and Sarah Polley in a scene from Season 3 of
Clockwise from left, Martha Burns, Paul Gross, William Hutt, Janet Bailey and Sarah Polley in a scene from Season 3 of "Slings and Arrows." (Acorn Media)
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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Are you desperate for something new and different on TV while waiting for new episodes of your favorite shows to emerge after the writers' strike?

The perfect antidote to reruns and reality shows can be found in "Slings & Arrows," a sparkling Canadian series that ran for three too-brief seasons ending in 2006. The enchanting comedy stars Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennant, an actor who reluctantly becomes artistic director at the New Burbage Theatre when the company's longtime creative leader Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) runs afoul of a ham truck.

Shakespeare fans will relish the clear and constant affection for the Bard evinced by "Slings & Arrows," in which the New Burbage players mount one of the playwright's productions in each season. First up: "Hamlet," the very play that led Geoffrey to an emotional breakdown several years before on the New Burbage stage. He wound up leaving his then-fiancee, leading lady Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), and running out on his mentor, Oliver.

As Geoffrey wrestles with his own doubts about tackling the famously doubting Danish prince, up pops Oliver in the form of an appropriately Shakespearean ghost, prodding and provoking Geoffrey with all sorts of unwanted advice. (Acorn Media recently released "Slings & Arrows: The Complete Collection," a seven-volume DVD set featuring all three seasons, as well as a bonus disc of interviews, bloopers and extras; the Sundance Channel is also rerunning the series throughout the spring.)

The twitting, increasingly Oedipal interplay between the ectoplasmic mentor and his protege is amusing enough, but "Slings & Arrows" turns out to be an improbably absorbing if comical drama when it throws a cast of hugely appealing supporting players into the mix. Co-writer and former Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney plays bumbling New Burbage executive Richard Smith-Jones, who frantically seeks to bring the theater out of the red. (Two words: "Gilbert" and "Sullivan.") Series co-creator Susan Coyne plays Anna, his long-suffering assistant, who has a few of her own surprises up her sleeve.

One of the many joys of "Slings & Arrows" is watching some wonderful interpretations of Shakespeare's greatest hits. After "Hamlet" in Season 1, New Burbage mounts creditable productions of "Macbeth" and "King Lear" (along with smaller productions in its black-box theater).

Recalling "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead," Tom Stoppard's definitive Shakespearean play-on-a-play-within-a-play, "Slings & Arrows" rolls along with meta-meta merriment, giddily referencing the Bard at nearly every dramatic and verbal turn. But you don't have to be a scholar to enjoy the comedy, which veers from high to low with rollicking good fun.

And then there's the cavalcade of stars who show up for occasional cameos: The first season features Rachel McAdams as a wholesome ingenue who takes up with the smoldering Hollywood bad boy hired to play Hamlet. Season 2 welcomes Colm Feore as a devilishly creative marketing consultant. And Sarah Polley shows up in Season 3.

But funniest by far is "Slings & Arrows" regular Don McKellar as the cattily pretentious director Darren Nichols, who at one point decides to put on his second-stage production of "Romeo & Juliet" as a postmodern meditation on gender. "We'll be doing a series of exercises throughout the process that will help us deconstruct the signifiers in the play," he tells his bemused cast, adding that the meaning of the first exercise "will be immediately apparent to anyone with even passing familiarity with Roland Barthes."

As much fun as the star-spotting is in "Slings & Arrows," the program's most sublime moments belong to actors you never heard of: One of the most genuinely moving scenes occurs in Season 1, when Geoffrey is forced to workshop "Macbeth" with a bunch of middle managers as part of a "Shakespeare in Business" seminar (one of Richard's many monetizing schemes). It's all excruciatingly gimmicky and forced until one of the bureaucrats delivers a tenderly electrifying performance of the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy.

The moment is wholly unexpected in the midst of an otherwise madcap jape. And it's par for the course for "Slings & Arrows," which strikes a pitch-perfect balance between farce and deep feeling. There's no suffering to be had while watching "Slings & Arrows," just outrageous good fortune.

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