Ever been to Stratford in Canada, a town that specializes in Shakespearean plays (among others) year-round? Well, I have -- and I have new appreciation for the thespians and managers who manage to keep those venerable theatres running, if they have to deal with half the stuff that goes on in "Slings and Arrows: The Complete Series." It's a subtle, hilarious comedy with death, romance, ghosts and corporate idiocy.
As the story starts, artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is run over by a pig truck after drunkenly falling asleep in the road. His replacement: former protege and genius iconoclast Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), whose acting career ended in a nervous breakdown onstage. Unsurprisingly, the acting troupe -- including Geoffrey's ex-lover Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) -- are wary of of Geoffrey's brilliant but erratic behavior.
And Geoffrey isn't too sure of himself, since he seems to be seeing Oliver's ghost trying to guide him from beyond the grave (and causing Geoffrey to start screaming at thin air). Now he has to not only produce "Hamlet" (ironic, no?), but deal with Ellen's cougar romances, avant-garde director Darren Nichols, and an omnivorous American businesswoman trying to turn New Burbage into a shallow theatrical theme park. Will the show go on, or is this "Hamlet" doomed?
The second season sees Geoffrey being forced to put on "Macbeth," and the curse begins to affect the theater right away. The "Romeo and Juliet" director falls off the stage and breaks her neck, putting the production in Darren Nichols' hands; an edgy new ad campaign alienates EVERYBODY; Ellen is being audited; and Oliver's ghost returns to help Geoffrey put on "Macbeth" as he dreamed it.
And the series ends, "King Lear is the newest production at New Burbage -- except that Oliver and Geoffrey are suffering from some personal doubts. Also, the legendary actor who has come out of retirement to play Lear... is dying. So Geoffrey has to keep the play from self-destructing and the leading man from expiring. At the same time, Darren is putting on a sort of low-rent "Rent" that threatens to overshadow the Bard!
If I had to compare "Slings and Arrows" to another comedy series, it would be something like "Arrested Development" meets "The Office" (original or remake). You've got death, romance, corporate treachery, possible insanity, horrible "postmodern" adaptations (the chess pieces!), weird postmortem requests, goths, con-men, dancers, and occasionally a duel ("Everybody cries when they get stabbed. There's no shame in that").
And all this increasingly ridiculous stuff is handled in a straight-faced, non-slapsticky manner with subplots that run through each season -- in fact, each season is actually kind of like a miniseries. The writing is simply brilliant ("Theatre ethics? That's like saying 'whorehouse morals.'") and takes some brilliant comic stabs at bad actors and even worse directors (the dancing "stoned" Ophelia).
Gross is playing the exact opposite of his famous "Due South" role. His Geoffrey is wonderfully erratic, weird and devoted to his craft -- he's delightfully quirky, painfully honest and just a little big insane. Quimette is delightfully witty as Geoffrey's ghostly mentor who guides him from the great beyond, and Burns is excellent as Geofffrey's on-off lover.
"Slings and Arrows: The Complete Collection" is a show that is deliciously subtle, hilarious and clever -- and if you know anything about Shakespeare or putting on a play, it'll have you rolling in the aisles.