This week’s guest:
(see her reactions below)
Nahum: “Oliver Welles…he died last night.”
Kate: “So I’m not fired?”
(a moment of genuine grief and processing by Kate)
Kate: “So what’s going to happen to Hamlet?”
Nahum: “Hamlet will be Hamlet…an ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates even today.”
I choose to start this week’s recap with the above exchange not only because I love it and it’s hilarious, but because it’s a perfect symbol of everything Slings and Arrows does right. Let’s break down the moment (Caitlin will analyze the text later; I’ll be talking about the character beats).
Kate is running late for her call time, having traveled by bus to film a crummy audition for Corny Smacks cereal, a “wonderful (sorry, “wonderfully crunchy”) way to start your day”. She gets waylaid in traffic on her bus, and, amidst her paranoia, discovers an empty theatre with only Nahum backstage. She hasn’t heard the news about Oliver.
That her first instinct is relief in her job security, and then her second is embarrassment about her first instinct, followed then by her actual emotional response, is so very true of the theatre instinct. It’s a tough, and necessarily vain world. And if one thing is true in life, it’s that we always worry for ourselves first, social propriety be damned.
Therefore, it literally only takes a moment before thoughts turn back to the theatre, and the next production. But of course, the show will go on. Beyond even the show, Hamlet will go on. Nothing will ever stop Hamlet. That Dane will be contemplating suicide long after all of us are gone. If Claudius genuinely “died” at the end of the world’s final production of Hamlet, that fratri-regicidal bastard will outlive us all.
The Melancholy Dane has certainly outlived Oliver, who, in case that ending of episode 1 was too ambiguous, is definitely dead now. Of course, minus his toupee, it takes Richard a moment to ID the body. “We didn’t socialize”, he excuses. Off he sends Oliver to the Mortimer Brothers for preparation, and as Oliver is rolled off, we hear one quick “Oh no…” from the body.
And there’s our premise, ladies and gentleman!
The beginning of the second episode of a series is a scary time to introduce such an important element as “by the way, there’s a talking ghost that only Geoffrey can see!” That it works at all is a stroke of luck, and that it is this good is miraculous.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, here! Before Geoffrey and Oliver have their fateful reunion, there’s much to be done at the theatre, and only Richard and Poor Anna to handle it all! Press conferences, releases, personal phone calls, agendas, and one extremely daunting last will in testament are all to be handled by two people grieving in very different ways. Most importantly, there’s a funeral to plan!
Ways to watch:
1) Borrow the complete series DVDs from a friend. Trust me; someone you know owns them. If you want to drop the cash, they sell the DVDs in the Shakespeare Theatre Company gift shop and on Amazon, where the whole series is $38.99.
2) Netflix! has the series available on DVD.
3) Amazon Prime. If you’re paying for the year-round two-day shipping ($74.99 a year), you already get it for free as part of their unlimited streaming content.)
4) Amazon Instant. $1.99 per episode, or $8.99 for each whole season.
Richard is being goosed into ambitious action by Holly, while simultaneously buckling under the pressure and lashing out at Poor Anna. Anna, meanwhile, just needs a hug, and a hot cocoa, and someone to listen to her cry. And someone needs to get movie star Jack Crew picked up at the airport (spoiler alert: that’s the thing everyone forgets.)
So Jack ends up taking the bus, and the very same one that Kate is rushing back to New Burbage on from her busted audition. Commercial auditions are a different breed of insanity from theatre – the kind where you walk into a room with four other people who look and are dressed exactly like you, where you say one line, awkwardly catch a soccer ball, and even more awkwardly kick it into the camera. My favorite grace note? That Kate ends up booking the commercial anyway.
I love Kate’s conversation with Claire on the subject of whether or not to take the shoot vs. stay for Oliver’s funeral, because Claire is shooting mixed signals all over the place. Of course you should stay for the funeral, she says. But then Kate gets the offer and it’s Of course you should take the job, it’s a national spot! Such is the actor’s life.
Claire wouldn’t miss the funeral for the world (exposure! The chance to read two sonnets!), though perhaps Oliver is better off NOT being there. Tacky Grecian columns and the masks of comedy and tragedy garishly dress the stage at Richard’s behest. Tech is underway … because what is a funeral if not a show? It’s the only way these people know how to do it.
Enter Geoffrey. As if alerted by a greater power, Geoffrey wakes up and looks at the phone moments before it rings with the bad news about his old friend. With the viewing that night, Geoffrey has something he must do – return to Oliver his copy of Hamlet. As Geoffrey lays the book down on Oliver’s body, attempting to part with the play forever, Oliver thanks him.
If a dead body were ever to start talking to me, I imagine I’d react something like Geoffrey, paralyzed by shock, worrying about the mental break that must be happening. Though I gotta say, comedy-wise, Oliver’s nonchalance about the whole thing is just as funny, making the gag work like gangbusters overall. Fortunately, Geoffrey is interrupted by Chairwoman of the Board May, who invites him to speak at Oliver’s funeral. “Don’t forget your book,” Oliver reminds Geoffrey, not letting him part with his destiny.
Thus we come to the centerpiece of the episode, Oliver’s funeral. Everyone gets five minutes to talk, says stage manager Maria (someone has to stay in work mode when things get sentimental, after all). Claire shoehorns in an extra sonnet. Numerous old faces of the Festival tell their favorite little “bitchy Oliver” quips. Polite laughs and polished words abound.
We should see the effect that Geoffrey’s speech will have coming from the moment he sees Ellen backstage. Ellen, who to this point has shrugged off Oliver’s death with quips and denials (“We weren’t close anymore” and the like), is set free by seeing Geoffrey, and sobs uncontrollably in the greenroom.
Geoffrey takes the stage, sharing some of his favorite Oliver zingers from the rehearsal notes in the margin of his Hamlet (another authentic touch), before hitting this doozy: “The theatre is an empty box. And it is our task to fill it with fury, and ecstasy, and revolution.” He remembers Oliver’s golden age, and Oliver’s once-unprecedented ability in “telling a story truthfully.” “But now it’s all gone to shit”, he let out.
Mortified but captivated, the audience listens to Geoffrey’s takedown of the economics of New Burbage, and the man would surely be run out of town were it not for two convenient things.
1) Geoffrey is right.
2) The only Minister free on a Monday night was one with a fiery anti-gay sermon to deliver to all the sodomites in the theatre. Anna pulls a fire alarm and shoves him off the stage and evacuates the building. Geoffrey smiles, amused by the dark comedy, and that he wasn’t the worst speaker.
In the wake of this … wake, May decides that it’s time for an interim artistic director: not Richard, as Holly has been subtly angling for, but Geoffrey himself. Maybe he can fix this thing after all. After all, he was able to follow through with Oliver’s dying wish: to have his head removed from his corpse and rendered free of flesh (to be used as Yorick in all future productions of Hamlet, of course!)
But is he up to directing a movie star who ain’t so much known for the acting? Stay tuned.
How close does Slings come to real life?
“(oh Anna, I relate to you and want to bring you soooo many hugs)
What happens when a king dies? Shakespeare explored this topic a number of times, and to a lesser extent that is what this episode is taking on. Oliver’s sudden passing leaves a void that many people see as an opportunity for a power play and a few allow themselves to grieve.
How can grief be put into words? For some, it was sharing a memorable moment or a related quote, but Geoffrey’s feelings spew forth in a vitriolic quote from Macbeth. His unrehearsed current of disgust with what happened to Oliver and the festival was best encapsulated by Shakespeare’s angry words, delivered with much more passion than either of Claire’s empty sonnet recitations. How we use the text matters – without feeling the words are just empty platitudes. We run the risk of emptying Shakespeare’s words of meaning when we neglect the context and emotional connection.
The undertakers, a truly Shakespearean device, also find a relationship to the deceased through Shakespeare. One brother points out to the other that Oliver worked in the theatre, and the elder replies without irony, “All the world’s a stage… and we all play our parts.” Their business is not the most socially relateable, but they’re necessary to society and capable of insightful (yet humorous) commentary – just like the gravediggers.
And what will happen next? Kate’s third thought after learning of Oliver’s passing is “what’s going to happen to Hamlet?” as it’s the next show at the festival. “Hamlet will be Hamlet,” Nahum replies, “an ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates even today.” The world keeps turning, everything keeps moving, the show must go on, and we’ll keep returning to the plays that give us room for self-reflection, as Shakespeare’s do. What play, passage, or quote do you return to time and again in these moments?”
Lorraine Treanor: [your editor interjects]. For some of us, this episode gives rise to the famous story about actor/director Del Close, master improvisationalist, mostly known for his improvs at Second City. Every year, improv companies from around the country meet for the Del Close Marathon in NYC. True story. In 1999, as Close lay dying, he threw a party, and when his guest from the Goodman Theatre entered he said “If you’ve come for the head, you’re too early.” In his will, Close donated his skull to the Goodman to be used as the skull of Yorick, with appropriate playbill credit, no doubt. Years later, the executor confessed that they did not carry out Close’s wishes, but instead substituted a skull from a medical supply company. Better luck, Oliver!
Stray Thoughts and Quotes:
The Mortimer Brothers, man. Full of great, weird stuff. They’re so “Hamlet gravedigger”-y, as Caitlin mentions. My favorite: “Who’ll do us when we’re gone, Seth?”
The music in this episode was particularly interesting. We had a funeral organ arrangement of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, plus several quirky variations on “Greensleeves”.
“You want me to write that Oliver is dead and we’re rescheduling rehearsals?” – Anna
“You’re not going to do this yourself, are you?”
“I’m not going to tell you the thought hadn’t occurred to me in the past.” – Anna and Geoffrey, talking about Oliver’s skull request.
Literally every word that came out of Geoffrey’s mouth re: the skull request to the morticians, especially “Let me explain that I am not crazy” and “I don’t want to do anything weird with the head.” And then brandishing a cooler and saying, “Let’s do this thing.”