This week’s guests:
(see their reactions below)
“Actors! You’re all the same! You’re all a bunch of selfish, whiny children! Well fuck you all! Fuck off, you fuckers!” – Maria
I don’t think I can write a word on anything else before I give Maria her due credit here. Our venerable stage manager sits, unfazed by the actual, literal sword fight happening in front of her, drunk at a party at Ellen’s house. Everyone else has scrambled, but not Maria, and she is sure as hell not going to let this idiocy incited by Geoffrey go uncriticized (at least not as long as she’s got liquid courage).
Indeed, deep down this must be something that every stage manager has wanted to say at some point to those stupid actors with whom they work.
Hey! Let’s ask actual, real-life stage manager Renee Yancey what she thinks:
“Maria is the one television depiction of a stage manager that actually reflects what a stage manager does (though a bit dramatized, naturally). She is my favorite character in the series, and in her glorious drunken rant at Ellen’s party she boldly declares what most stage managers only think. I think many stage managers secretly share Maria’s sentiments and wish they could express what she did. I laugh out loud and applaud her every time I revisit this episode (too many times to recount)! Maria is a treat to watch throughout the entire series and this moment ranks in my top 3 favorite scenes in Slings and Arrows.”
Theatre is a funny business, since it is so thoroughly enmeshed in both, and represents a place where they’re both kind of the same thing.
It’s no coincidence that these themes permeate Geoffrey’s first real episode in the spotlight. The dramatic thrust of the hour comes from this very dilemma in Geoffrey; he is terrified of the mental effects that directing Hamlet will have on him, but he can’t fight the fact that he desperately wants it, so deeply does the atrophy of the Festival affect him.
Around Geoffrey, we see all sorts of fantasies coming to life: Richard experiences theatre bliss when going to see Mamma Mia! with Holly (“I hate Shakespeare!”, he blurts afterwords). Kate and Claire take a pot-fueled holiday on a day off, and Kate ends up sharing several very sweet personal moments with movie star Jack Crews. Ellen brings the cast away from the bar to exclude Geoffrey. Terry the businessman gets a moment in the spotlight with a Macbeth speech, followed by the attention of a female coworker.
I truly loved watching the scenes of Geoffrey coaching Terry (played by a pre-Tony nominee Bob Martin, also a co-creator of Slings). Paul Gross is really mesmerizing, making it so easy to see the passion he has for Shakespeare’s words. Martin, to his credit, gives a heartfelt, but believably simple, performance with his rendition of the speech. Terry’s a natural, and so is Geoffrey. But much like Hamlet himself, Geoffrey must be galvanized into action.
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.
Enter Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), one of my favorite damn characters in television history. Every hero needs a villain, and Nichols presents the perfect one for Geoffrey: the vainglorious hack. Live animals, pyrotechnics, overly literal concepts, assertion that “this play is dead” – Nichols arrives as a perfect storm of horror, the ultimate stimulus to Geoffrey’s deep inner need to create great work. He is the antithesis of everything Geoffrey represents. No wonder Geoffrey (with alcohol helping once again this hour) is moved to literal violence, telling Darren “I’m going to KILL you” with the perfect balance of hilarity and genuine terror.
Slings and Arrows, to its infinite credit, never shies away from the serious side of its jokes. Throughout this hour, as Geoffrey grapples with Oliver, it is made quite clear, whether in an empty theatre or during an interview with Basil, that Geoffrey may actually be insane. In fact, at this point we’ve received no confirmation that he isn’t, as Oliver’s presence is exclusively known to Geoffrey. Nice bit of parallelism, eh?
Geoffrey’s madness is frightening, frequently to Anna but mostly to Ellen. As mentioned above, she takes great pains to avoid him, but it isn’t until the end of the hour that we truly start to understand why. In another bravura moment for Paul Gross, Geoffrey explains the deep connection he once had to Ellen, and how it is the only thing he misses about acting. “I miss that”, he says about their love. “Because life cannot compete with that.”
“Pure entertainment!” Richard gushes over drinks after seeing… Mamma Mia. Musicals resonate with us in a different way than Shakespeare, but resonate he does, despite what Richard, Holly, AND Darren Nichols say – Shakespeare is not dead.
Well, ok, of course the man HIMSELF is dead, but the inherent humanity in his words lives on. As Geoffrey contemplates Oliver’s skull, Anna asks if it feels heavy. “It’s lighter without the ego,” he replies, but what’s really missing is the human element. The person that once occupied this space has left it behind, but the memories of that person are what we think of. “He hath bore me on his back a thousand times,” Hamlet thinks, staring into Yorick’s empty skull. Geoffrey is reminded of Oliver’s addiction to chocolate mints. We can’t forget the little human things despite the human being gone.
Geoffrey directs Terry in Macbeth‘s “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech with the insight that we as human beings are inherently selfish: we mourn the part of ourselves that is lost when someone close to us dies, not necessarily the deceased themselves. We are still human beings, left to analyze former humans’ being.
Meanwhile, Darren Nichols has arrived to direct Hamlet and he is throwing directions left and right… at the action. Fireballs, horses, garbage smells – moments that are going to suit his concept superimposed on a “dead” text. He has no direction or care for the language. “I didn’t know theater was so much like the movies!” Jack says. Now, I’ve seen very successful productions directed with a cinematic eye – but you cannot lose the text, which connects the visuals with the human experience of the play. The words themselves are effective, even in a cold rehearsal room spoken aloud by suits on a corporate retreat.
So. What have we learned?
“Just fuck around with the text.” It works. It works in classrooms, offices, rehearsals, anywhere that you can speak text out loud and play with its nuances. Exploring the humanity in the words to connect it to ourselves, to our audiences, connecting us to the human beings who have performed and witnessed these plays over the last 400 years. To the human who penned them all that time ago.
Also duel whenever possible, because that looks like fucking fun.
Stray Observations and Quotes:
The hour opens with actors in the company fretting about the new artistic director, and changes he might bring. Rings true.
“I imagine this kind of work must be the secret dream of every taxidermist.” – Geoffrey, showing Oliver’s skull to Anna.
Claire believes getting high will give her sense-memory for Ophelia’s madness. Nice foreshadowing to my favorite scene of this series, just a few episodes away!
“Let’s get rid of the curriculum and just fuck around with some text.” – Geoffrey. Not really a funny line, but I love how honest that is about the pleasures of studying acting.
“Maybe I’m in Hell. This is what I always imagined it would be like. Stifling eternal, the air filled with the shrieks of the damned.” – Oliver, while listening to Claire’s “singing”.
As Darren busies himself with pyrotechnic talk, he ignores that Jack struggles even saying the words. Now there’s a metaphor.