Geoffrey: “Critics are gonna murder us. Jack’s an American movie star, that’s all they care about, right?”
Richard: “They can’t ignore what happened on this stage tonight!”
Geoffrey: “What did happen, exactly?”
Richard: “I…I don’t know! This is all new to me!”
Geoffrey: “Then please, join us again! We do eight shows a week, matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays!”
As half-hour call rolls around to the backstage halls of New Burbage’s Hamlet, Richard, whose attempts to sabotage Jack, wanders the halls, before being asked to leave by Maria. “You shouldn’t be back here”, she says, reminding him that once the play is underway even the executive director has no power there. Maria is the boss.
Unfortunately for Richard, theatre rules prevent him from even getting back into the house. He is trapped backstage, forced to watch the play from the wings and watch the actors really work. Unfortunately for Richard, theatre rules prevent him from even getting back into the house. He is trapped backstage, forced to watch the play from the wings and watch the actors really work. He is also finally separated from Holly. As Nahum wisely notes, “If a farmer names his pigs, it makes the slaughter very difficult.”
Richard is about to receive a wake-up call.
Obviously, opening night of Hamlet is the climax to this episode and the entire season of Slings and Arrows, and it is a testament to the writing that every plotline of the show dovetails quite neatly into the action around that opening. By the time the curtain comes down (or rather, by the time “LX 129” is called), all story is resolved.
As most storytellers would tell you, though, it’s all in the journey, not the destination, so let’s look at how we got there. Jack has disappeared thanks to Richard’s sabotaging comments, and Kate hurries off to find him. Meanwhile, in a nifty bit of parallelism, Geoffrey and Ellen work to resolve their issues by taking a walking tour of the night Geoffrey lost his mind.
Geoffrey’s trip is an enlightening bit of story revelation, handled with great style. In particular, I love how he is simultaneously in his flashback scene to his own Hamlet while talking to Ellen in the present. He remembers the moment entirely, right up to Ellen watching from the wings (“Bad habit. Very distracting.”, Geoffrey reminds Ellen, in a bit of that patented theatre truth the show is so good at). He delivers Hamlet’s farewell lines to Ophelia directly to Ellen, then blanks on the whole rest of the play before throwing himself into a grave and running away.
Geoffrey and Ellen continue to discover how deeply each was affected that night, as both contemplated suicide, and Geoffrey committed three crimes (including one felony theft of a car) before being arrested. He could have ended the whole thing if he had actually walked into Ellen’s house to confront her and Oliver, but he confesses he may have actually stabbed her.
As they continue to talk things out, they end up taking a swan boat ride in the park, where they see Jack, now found by Kate. Jack ran off after Richard’s words hit him at his most vulnerable point, but Kate brings him around to a simple truth: he has to do it. He’s scared, but he won’t be able to live with himself if he walks away. He’s an actor. It’s Hamlet.
Communication is the panacea to all the ills confronted this week. As Jack, Kate, Ellen, and Geoffrey reach new points of clarity, Richard and Holly start to hit tension as she lies to him about her role in May’s coma (she is not dead, as I misremembered last week). They’re not talking, and Anna’s concern about canceling the show leads to a very awkward, deeply subtextual conversation with Richard, where so much is happening behind both of their eyes. Anna might see Richard’s corruption. Richard might be starting to come around. Susan Coyne and Mark McKinney are terrific.
As Hamlet approaches, Geoffrey, freed from the prison of his issues with Ellen and looking more relaxed than we’ve ever seen him, begins to repair the damage to Jack. He also works out some of his own issues:
“Actors are entirely dependent on other people for what they do. They need a writer, a director, they need someone to make costumes, sets, and props, they need a theatre, and worst of all, they need other actors. That’s a lot of people. That’s not even including the audience. Assemble those people into one place, the odds are that you’re gonna get screwed by somebody. Usually somebody wearing a tie.”
It’s a powerful moment of “dealing with it” for both Geoffrey and Jack, but Jack is still trapped in his head, overwhelmed by the scope of the play. And here is where Geoffrey proves to be a genius director – he reduces the role of Hamlet to its core elements to calm his overwhelmed actor. It’s six soliloquies, and the rest is filler. “Nail those six soliloquies, everyone goes home happy.” Jack can breathe again…well, once he vomits, that is.
“God help us. LX 1, go.” And so Hamlet begins, at Maria’s call. Richard watches from the wings, becoming transfixed (and emotional). Jack channels his sickness into Hamlet’s sickness (both would love to evaporate in that first speech), while Geoffrey counts one down, five to go. Kate and Ellen key in and let their new roles bring out new depths of their abilities.
By the time they get to “To be or not to be”, Jack is moving on momentum. “I know this one,” he says, not even stopping to think about it or count it or have Geoffrey boost him in anyway. It’s a perfect display of a confident actor by Slings and Arrows, as he moves right past a previous obstacle without so much as a thought.
The audience is transfixed, right through Hamlet’s death. The applause is thunderous. Richard is changed, Basil is off to write his cynical, pre-thought review (“To Buy or Not to Buy”, reads the headline). “LX 129 go…and fuck me blue, we’re done,” by Maria’s call.
Who are these people?
Is Holly a modern-day Lady M?
Are Geoffrey and Ellen an older, wiser, survived Hamlet and Ophelia? Or is Geoffrey actually kind of a Claudio and Ellen’s a Gertrude?
Is Oliver a more plain-speaking Ghost?
Is Anna a less physically-abused, but no-less wise Dromio?
We all are. One of the best things about this show is we can relate to these characters as our peers, and we can see ourselves in their Shakespearean extensions. Shakespeare’s characters permeate our popular culture – anytime lovers feel conflicted, anytime someone contemplates suicide, anytime someone feels keen pangs of jealousy or rage, anytime someone seeks something bigger than themselves – Shakespeare’s there with a character who’s been through that, too.
And here we are again, in the Theatre, doing the same thing over again. It’s Opening Night.
And, as Geoffrey says to Jack, no one’s looking for perfection. People want to see it live – to experience an immediate connection to the actors and the text and the story. And boy, can these actors access some truth for this production. “So you’re afraid to do it and you know you have to and if you don’t you won’t be able to live with yourself? Use it onstage.” (Kate to Jack) Geoffrey and Ellen both lived their characters in that fateful production in 1996 when he went mad and fled the festival and she (apparently) attempted to leap into the river to drown herself. Luckily, so far their stories are more comedic.
But I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call Holly a “Lady M.” She has too much follow-through and no remorse at all. She’s ambitious, surely the sin of Macbeth, but she uses her femininity as her power. She emasculates Richard, but she’s the one in charge of creating her kingdom, Shakespeareville (in Ep 5).
My skin crawled as she described this theatre town for “middle income families in a comfortable atmosphere of accessibility.” Every other building is retail (in costumes!), and the stages set aside for “those who like the classics” will be far away and small. All kitsch and no class.
It loses the meaning of what Shakespeare is to us – he’s not just some guy who wrote some stuff we have to read in school. As proved by Hamlet’s opening night at the end of this episode, the words in action eventually captivate the audience (and Richard), surprising and moving them. When Richard tells Holly that she is a terrible person, he’s saying it not because she doesn’t get Theatre – but the fact that while Theatre is a business its product is not simply creating blah entertainment to sit through, it’s an experience between humans onstage and off. She’s too cold to grasp that.
Watch along with us:
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.
Caitlin: “Apparently there is no late seating break at the New Burbage Festival!”
From Andrew Griffin, Lighting Designer: “No one calls ‘LX (number)’ as a lighting cue, and a theatre this big would NOT be running lights off of a f*ing submaster!” Details, details.
… and Quotes:
“Ok, everyone is released…until then, relax. And stay by a phone. Please.” – Maria, running the ship as best she can with cancellation on the menu.
Geoffrey yelling his predecessor Oliver’s name in blind rage, overheard by Anna, might make him seem like a downright sane artistic director.
“Yes Oliver, YOU broke me. Look at me. I’m talking to you, and you’ve been dead for weeks. Look at your handiwork. And all in the name of ‘good theatre’? Fuuuck!” – Geoffrey
“Are you sane?” – Ellen (Geoffrey makes “meh”-y response noise)
“I want to give you what you want. Control.”
“Now take off your pants.”
“Of course.” – Holly controlling Richard with his…well, you know.
“I was looking forward to your Gertrude. More than you’ll ever know.” – Geoffrey, as preface to a brutal comparison that launches he and Ellen on the path to resolution. “A willing victim of her own sexuality,” says the ugly drunk.
“I would have cut my throat, but you’re not allowed to do that in front of subscribers.” – Geoffrey
“I wanted to throttle a swan. Seemed sensible at the time.” – Geoffrey, on his 1996 detour to the river.
“God, why don’t we give up? I mean, really, what would it matter if we didn’t open this show? In the larger sense it wouldn’t matter at all.” – Ellen “In the larger sense nothing matters.” – Geoffrey
“I don’t know how to do anything else. I’d starve to death if I left the theatre.” – Ellen “You stay in the theatre because you don’t want to starve to death? Now THAT is irony.” – Geoffrey
Geoffrey’s simple explanation of “finding your light” is so patient, true, and, appropriately, opens the floodgates of Jack’s insecurity of not knowing enough about the theatre.
“Forget about perfection! There’s nothing more boring than perfection!” – Geoffrey, speaking the truth that all good actors must realize before they can be good.
“Stay up left of Laertes on your entrance.” “I’m gonna throw up.” “Use it.” – Geoffrey to Jack, headed onstage.
Jack’s first soliloquy beautifully merges the show’s styles for reality and headspace.
Nahum observing Hamlet’s dilemma of killing Claudius in prayer was delightful.
Geoffrey almost forgets the skull! In one last big comic beat, we see Oliver receive his final wish.
“Holy shit man!” – Jack, in unbridled enthusiasm/relief as he exits the stage.
Terry had a bit part!
Geoffrey suggests Cleopatra for Ellen, and she is deeply moved by all that comment implies.
We end the episode with Geoffrey and Ellen laying Oliver’s ashes to final rest in the tiny little river, with Geoffrey reciting “I am the cygnet” from King John (act 5, scene vii). Now THAT’s a deep-cut, Shakespeare-wise.
— Stay with us. Next week we begin Season 2, New Burbage Festival’s production of Macbeth. —