It took a few recommendations (including Kelley Eskridge mentioning it and Abigail Nussbaum writing a comprehensive review), but I recently watched all 18 episodes of the Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows, a smart and tremendously entertaining show about a theatre festival very similar to the Stratford Festival, where many of the actors in the series have appeared.
Stratford is a place of magic for me -- I have only been there once, in the mid-90s, but it was among the greatest theatre experiences of my life. Or, rather, two productions were among the greatest theatre experiences of my life: productions of Amadeus and The Merry Wives of Windsor (we also saw Macbeth and The Gondoliers -- the former was, I thought then and expect I would think now, dull and awful; the latter was well done, but it's not among my favorite Gilbert & Sullivan shows, so while I appreciated it, I didn't feel much passion for it). I have long lost the program from that summer, but two actors so impressed me that their names have stuck with me ever since: Stephen Ouimette and William Hutt.
Ouimette played Mozart in Amadeus to Brian Bedford's Salieri. He gave the role a range I had never imagined it could possess, making the character into something entirely different from what Tom Hulce did in the movie. Ouimette was also in Merry Wives, and one of the things I most remember is that I didn't realize it was the same person for quite a while. Here was an actor playing utterly different characters in repertory, something I had never experienced before, and which opened my eyes to what real acting can be: the challenge, the fun, the beauty of it. But the real revelation was Hutt as Falstaff. I had just finished high school, and up to that point had not seen any truly great performances of Shakespeare, and few performances of his comedies at all. They never seemed very funny to me on the page, and reading them was much more of a chore than reading the tragedies and histories. But I laughed throughout this production of Merry Wives, and most especially at Hutt's performance.
Stephen Ouimette was one of the stars of Slings & Arrows, and William Hutt was a guest star in the third season, giving a tremendously moving performance as an elderly actor who wants to play Lear before he dies (Hutt himself would die at age 87 in June 2007, less than a year after the end of Slings & Arrows). The presence of these two actors alone was enough to ensure my interest, but what held that interest was the intelligence of the writing and the impressively high quality of the acting from the first episode to the last.
From early on, Slings & Arrows was conceived as a three-season show, with each season following the ups and downs of putting on a particular production -- Hamlet in the first season, Macbeth in the second, and King Lear in the third. The events in the lives of the characters often parallel or echo the events within the plays, and the show deliberately explores ideas of youth in season one, middle age (and ambition) in season two, and old age (and mortality) in season three. It doesn't all work -- the second season is somewhat weaker than the first and third; I never bought the motivation for Paul Gross's character's insanity; the third season suggests an answer to the question of whether Ouimette's character is really a ghost or a figment of Gross's character's imagination, a question that should never have been answered, etc. -- but there are no episodes that felt like clunkers, and remarkably few episodes that didn't feel tightly conceived and cleverly executed.
One of the smart choices made by the writers of the show (Susan Coyne, Bob Martin, and Mark McKinney primarily -- Coyne and McKinney also play recurring characters) was to treat Shakespeare's works seriously and respectfully, but to make the series itself a comedy. All the characters are basically stereotypes, with a generally predictable range of personality and emotion, though the main characters do develop over the course of the three seasons (I would call the musical theatre actors in the third season caricatures if I hadn't lived with such people). But most of the real moments of vivid, multidimensional acting occur in the scenes from Shakespeare's plays -- not just because Shakespeare could write brilliantly complex characters, but because Shakespeare's plays offer us insight into what is going on within these character's lives. The characters don't become fully real, fully human until they are performing. Which is utterly appropriate to a show that is primarily about actors.
Because it is a comedy, there is very little about the arc of each season of Slings & Arrows that is a surprise. We know each show will be a huge hit (artistically if not financially) and that the main characters will all triumph in the end, just as we know that everybody will get married at the end of a Shakespearean comedy. Suspense about the end result is not what holds our interest -- what keeps us engaged is wondering how we will get to that end, and the marvelous individual scenes along the way. The Slings & Arrows writers loved symmetry, and they had great fun pairing characters and situations, creating subplots to comment on the main plots, etc., and the show's directors and editors took advantage of every such moment, particularly as they used the progress of one production at the festival to comment on another.
The overall vision of the show is a sentimental, idealistic, and simplistic one, a vision that very much celebrates the mystical, Romantic idea of actors as magicians and holy fools. In a documentary about the world of the theatre, such a vision would be infuriating; in Slings & Arrows it is charming. It charms us into believing -- at least for the hours we are watching the show -- that the lines between art and commerce can be clearly drawn, that art can heal wounds and make peace, that everyone has a great performance somewhere inside them, that sincerity matters more than anything else. Though its characters have their cynical moments, the show itself isn't the least bit cynical. If it weren't so funny, and if scene by scene it weren't so well written, the Pollyanna approach to life that is at the show's core would be insufferable. Instead, Slings & Arrows presents us with a fantasy world we all might want to live in. It's certainly one I was in no hurry to leave, perhaps because after years of disillusioning experiences with theatre at all levels, I still have enough of an idealist buried somewhere inside me to believe that maybe it isn't entirely a fantasy world.
Meanwhile, up at Stratford they're doing Taming of the Shrew, and so am I right now. They're also doing Romeo & Juliet, which I taught for the first time this past school year (badly, I must say, but so it goes). The company that produces our Shrew, Advice to the Players, also runs a camp for kids, and a bunch of those kids (from this year and past ones) decided to put on their own production of R&J, directed by and starring them, the day after Shrew closes. Because they thought it would be fun. Because there's something about Shakespeare and about the theatre that they love. Idealists and lunatics, magicians and holy fools! And it gives my heart great joy!