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Slings & Arrows
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
— opening lines of Hamlet's most famous speech.
L-R: Stephen Ouimette and Paul Gross
Oh to be able to once again take an annual trip to the Stratford Theater Festival as CurtainUp critics and theater loving readers have done for years. But life focused on surviving a pandemic has kept audiences at home and theaters closed.

Fortunately we CAN take a digital trip back to follow the backstage and on stage ups and downs of the New Burbage Shakespearean Festival., the fictional stand-in for the real Stratford one . The three-part Canadian mini- series Slings & Arrows , filmed in 2003 and aired over three subsequent seasons became a big globa. I'm happy to report that it's still available as a DVD or on AcornTV, and that it's as clever and entertaining as ever; in fact, one of the best diversions at a time when substantial fare is much needed comfort food.

The show is a hilarious and also touching journey into the world of the New Burbage Theatre Festival as it prepares its latest offerings. The focus is on the activities of the Shakespeare players for the season's Main Stage productions — Hamlet in part one, Macbeth and Lear in parts two and three. But to broaden its appeal the Festival has added more contemporary fare for its smaller venue.

What makes the entire enterprise so much fun is that the themes of the plays in both venues are often seen overlapping, as are the personal and professional conflicts of both casts and crews. While the struggle of companies like this to remain relevant and financially stable is hardly funny, the inventive creators and splendid cast have managed to make it all delightfully and hilariously over the top. What's more it's all dished up with generous portions of some of the Bard's most famous lines.

The show's star and its most conflicted character is Paul Gross as actor/director Geoffrey Tennant who left Burbage with a mental breakdown nas been re-enlisted as Burgage's Artistic Director

I was lucky enough to actually see Gross on stage w)hen he appeared on Broadway in Private Lives (review). He proved to be a charming leading man,. However, it was Slings & Arrows that established his world wide reputation.

The second key player is Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) . But since Oliver dies as the show begins, Welles plays an ever present ghost at Geoffrey's side. For Shakespeare aficionados the decision by the creative triumvirate — Bob Martin, who also wrote and played the narrating Man in the Chair in the Broadway hit musical Drowsy Chaperone which also originated in Canada, Susan Coyne ,and Mark McKinney — it made perfect sense to make Oliver's ghost a key charactre After all, a number of he Bard's plays have several major characters come back from the dead.

As Martin did in Drowsy Chaperone (and does on a smaller scale here), Coyne and McKinney also moved from behind the scenes to play pivotal characters: Coyne as Anna Conroy, as the overworked and ever resourceful administrator who must deal with the seemingly endless crises.. . . McKinney as Richard Smith-Jones, the buttoned-down, bottom line oriented business manager with a ready to explode urge for a more creative presence. Both are terrific. And so is the entire ensemble.

Martha Burns is delightful as Ellen Fanshaw, the company's sexy leading lady and Geoffrey's past and present lover (and Paul Gross's wife) . The myriad subplots include various other romances, including one in Part one featuring a still unknown Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams. While I didn't see McAdams before, I did see Kirby while still attending theater as the star of Judgment Day and , when I started streaming, as Lenny Bruce in the hit streaming series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In the series' opening season he's most impressive as an American movie star who's been brought in to ratchet up box office revenue even though he has zero stage experience. To his credit the idea of following in the footsteps of great Hamlets terrifies him.

A memorable comic presence in all three parts is Don McKellar as Darren Nichols, a pretentious director despised by Tennant . he's deliciously bested by McKinney's Richard when he allows himself to give in to his more creative urges. The series' costume designer Leah Carlson outdoes herself with some of her outfits for Darren.

No minor pleasure comes from the opening and closing songs (Bravo Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison), not to mention their delivery by two elderly playing multiple minor roles, Graham Harley and Michael Polley.

With each Part of the season totaling six 45-minute episodes, there's obviously enough rich and diverting entertainment here to ease the anxiety and isolation of this pandemic.

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©Copyright 2020, Elyse Sommer.
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