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The New Burbage Theater Festival is one of the most respected stages in Canada. Its sponsors provide healthy budgets for their lavish theater complex. Unfortunately its productions have become completely boring. The production of Midsummer’s Night Dream is lifeless. Festival director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) knows he’s going through the motions to create a quality production for the high brow audience. He’s thrilled to see his former actor Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) create a stir when he chains himself to his impoverished theater. Geoffrey wants to guilt the landlord into letting his Tempest go into production. It doesn’t work, but the media falls for the passionate actor. Oliver is jealous that Geoffrey knows how to create danger and excitement around a theater. Geoffrey still holds a grudge against Oliver and won’t take his call.
No need to spoil this series, but Geoffrey ends up taking over the posh festival. His first production is Hamlet which was also his last involvement with the festival. When Geoffrey previously played the Dane under Oliver’s direction, the actor snapped and vanished from the stage. Will he survive or will he flip out once more? Oliver isn’t much of a help to him. Even less of help is Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney), the festival’s bean counter. He’s hooked up with Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), the representative of the festival’s biggest sponsor. She plots with him to take control of the festival. Geoffrey’s work gets harder with the stunt casting of an action star (Luke Kirby) as Hamlet. The young star is used to uttering a few words before the explosions and getting several takes to do it right. Rachel McAdams (before she made Mean Girls and The Notebook) is the actress that assures him that he can utter the long monologues. This sub-plot truly did happen when Keanu Reeves played Hamlet in Winnipeg, Canada.
Each six episode season deals with another festival season with the focus being the massive Shakespeare production. The theme of the plays eventually overtake the lives of the characters. Season two has MacBeth in the big house. Geoffery collaborates with Oliver to bring the blood and guts to the stage. His biggest problem is a lead actor who would rather play to the crowd than get inside the character. Geoffery and Oliver resort to extreme measures to get their vision onto the stage. Richard ends up resorting to extreme marketing in order to bring a younger crowd to the festival. Colm Feore is hilarious as the guru who decides the best way to rebrand the Bard.
Season three’s main focus is King Lear. Instead of going with a major movie star, Geoffery risks it on his former acting mentor, Charles (Richard Hutt). While Charles is getting on in age, he desperately wants to tackle the role of King Lear for a final time. Indie darling Sarah Polley is part of the troupe and finds herself living the role of Lear’s daughter. Richard discovers that his spreadsheet talents do translate to the art world as he gets his chance with a new musical being debuted at the festival. Now that he can be creative, can he be stopped? Unlike shows that peter out at the end, the final episode of Slings and Arrows is an emotional heartbreaker. Richard Hutt is a great Shakespearean actor in Canada so his portrayal of Charles is particularly poignant to folks in the Great White North.
The Canadian show has a few familiar faces and voices to American viewers. Paul Gross was the star of Due South. Stephen Ouimette was the voice of the animated Beetlejuice. Don McKellar has appeared in numerous Atom Egoyan films. But the true surprise of the cast is Kids In the Hall member Mark McKinney. After his talents were wasted on Saturday Night Live, McKinney seemed doomed to the “remember how funny that guy was” pile. Turns out he was saving his creative energy for a greater platform. Besides his role as Richard Smith-Jones, McKinney co-wrote the series. All those crummy years of being “Live from New York” are forgiven.
Slings and Arrows is an amazing series. If you dabbled in theater, you’ll become hooked immediately on the show. For those who were hesitant to assume the role of a tree in your elementary school play, the show is entertaining without alienating. They don’t overwhelm us with unexplained inside jokes for the theater crowd. Be warned that once you want start a season, you’ll want to watch all six episodes in a row. And you won’t feel guilty marathoning since it’s just one big movie. Think of this as Canada’s version of The Wire except instead of Baltimore gangs dealing heroin, we’re given thespians pushing Shakespeare.
The Complete Collection is seven discs inside slimline cases. They come inside a cardboard box. Each disc is single sided and single layered. You might not want to read the episode summaries since they will spoil the show. Each season has been released solo. For this collection, they’ve included a bonus DVD.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The transfer looks sharp without any dirt.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0. The sound levels are good. You can hear a pin drop in the theater scenes. Actually you can hear the old patrons snore in their seats. There aren’t any subtitles, but it is Closed Captioned.
Trailer (4:24) gives you a sense to the theatrical insanity to come.
Bloopers (6:35) has choice flubs from the cast.
Deleted & Extended Scenes (10:02) has little moments, but nothing that seemed like a mistake to trim.
Production Notes is the text for the promotional material sent out to entertainment writers. There are quotes from various folks involved in the production.
Cast Filmographies gives the credits to eight of the actors.
Lyrics to “Cheer Up Hamlet” & “Call the Understudy” so you can sing along.
Cast Interview (Martha Burns & Stephen Ouimette) (14:11)
Deleted & Extended Scenes (14:20) Eight scenes that didn’t completely survive the cutting room.
Trailer (3:59) sets up season two’s problems.
Cast Filmographies cover 11 of the actors featured this season.
Trailer (4:34) sets up the final season without giving too much away.
Paul Gross Interview (17:01)
Susan Coyne Interview (9:25)
Song Lyrics is the text of “A Walk in the Rain” and “I Played the Part.”
Extended Scenes of King Lear (10:59) gives a chance to experience Richard Hutt without interruption.
Deleted & Extended Scenes (19:44)
Cast Filmographies covers 8 of the actors.
A Look behind the scenes (8:58) lets us see how this short series was produced.
Martha Burns Interview (8:47)
Stephen Ouimette Interview (9:33)
Graham Harley Interview (4:06)
William Hutt on the Set (2:34) lets us see how this stage lion deals with the camera crew.
The Cast and Crew on the Set of Slings and Arrows (5:32)
Director Peter Wellington on the set (27:25)
Slings and Arrows is perhaps the greatest thing to come out of Canada since Wayne Gretzky. Each season gets better than the last as the theater company goes through comic and tragic events worthy of a Shakespeare play.
Acorn Media presents Slings And Arrows: The Complete Collection. Starring: Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Mark McKinney, Don McKellar. Running time: 354 minutes. Rating: Unrated. Released on DVD: February 5, 2008. Available at Amazon.com