Geoffrey: “Actors should be frightened for their lives…that’s when they do their best work.”
Richard: “Really? That’s just like normal people!”
As season 2 of Slings and Arrows begins, fear is the topic hot on everyone’s mind. Fear of action, or fear of inaction. Fear of love, or fear of living without it. People have to make choices, and no matter what, the consequences must be accepted.
So it is with Geoffrey, our hero, every time he’s confronted with the notion of Macbeth.* Starting right with his confrontation with the old subscriber crone (“A witch!” he tells us in a clear allusion) and continuing through his conversations with Richard and Ellen, Geoffrey must confront his greatest fear: that Oliver isn’t done with him yet. Oliver, you see, was obsessed with the play, and it was Oliver’s great unrealized dream to stage it to his liking.
* – I’m going to freely type Macbeth in these recaps. We’re not in a theatre, and the play is a direct subject of these pieces.
No grounds for superstition!
Over and over Geoffrey makes the excuse that Macbeth is “an extraordinarily difficult play to stage effectively”, but no one is taking that line. Ellen practically salivates at the notion of playing Lady M, and Richard? Richard, who arguably knows the least about theatre of any of the characters, tells Geoffrey outright, “No, it’s not.” Sometimes there is deep wisdom in naiveté.
Speaking of Richard, oof, poor guy. His dalliance with Holly has cost New Burbage a massive sponsor, and now the Festival is going to be struggling to make ends meet. Budgets must be cut, the company must be reduced, and more sellable plays are needed.
Fortunately, solutions offer themselves freely, keeping with this week’s other theme, fate. Fate removes Jack and Kate from the company, as he has contractual obligations to a movie studio; Kate, with some help from Ellen, realizes that she needs to grab hold of the love in her life before it’s too late. Fate gives Geoffrey a fantastic straw man in Brian, whom he can easily dispatch from the company (for being one of those absolutely insufferable know-it-alls who directly challenges his leadership).
Most importantly, fate gives New Burbage Henry Breedlove, at long last. Breedlove (unseen at this point) is a highly in-demand actor, suddenly available to perform at New Burbage after they’ve waited years for him. His signature role? Why, Macbeth, of course!
Ellen is the hour’s most fascinating character to watch, however. Part of the joy of a show’s second year is watching it gain the ability to shift focus to other members of the ensemble, and Martha Burns eats up her episode in the spotlight. Here, she is faced with her own choice, after a sudden kiss with Geoffrey after a challenging notes session. Seven years in the making, that one!
Sloan proposes to Ellen, and she accepts, though you’d never know by her behavior. She insists on the boy keeping it a secret. Meanwhile, all she wants is to be around Geoffrey, and for him to nut up and direct her in “that fucking play!”
However, much like everyone else, she eventually recants, giving a poor, drunken Sloan his ring back and sending him off in a cab. “If you were sober you’d see the wisdom in this,” she apologizes. He paws the window like a sad puppy going off to live on “the farm.”
“A Bicycle Made for Two,” play Cyril and Frank, as we watch the various couples share their affection. We watch Ellen cast off a lover and then immediately tell Kate to run towards hers. Off Kate and Jack go to Hawaii, while Geoffrey and Ellen finally return to “Old Ironsides.”
And who is waiting, off in the shadows? Is that…is that Oliver?
“This is one of the greatest plays ever written, so shut up, and listen. Sit quietly with your hands in your laps, don’t throw pennies, and stare at the stage until it is over.”
Student audiences are difficult. Not in the least because their necks are being breathed down by teachers and parents anxious not to be embarrassed by their behavior. Why a student group would be coming to the final matinee performance of a show instead of a weekday matinee is a little odd, but at least it’s representative. Student audiences, the older ones, are too cool for this stuff a lot of the time. They’ve been told that this is an important play, a work of art, and to appreciate it – but have they been engaged as audience members? Will they see the conflict of the characters, hear the flow of the language, feel the emotional pull of the story?
It can happen. I’ve seen students sucked into Henry V’s war, Iago’s machinations, Hamlet’s ponderings, Viola’s confusions, and the witty banter between Petruchio and Kate, and Benedick and Beatrice, and more besides. Why? Because the words are engaging, the characters are relatable, and the asides they give to the audience are meant to draw them closer. I’m not saying it’s 100% successful every time at shaking teenagers out of their gum-smacking ennui, but it’s possible. Considering that 400 years ago, the actors at the Globe were competing to be heard in 3000 pairs of ears over mutterings and chatter, un-mic’ed, in the open air, while fruit and wares-sellers peddled among the crowd, with the bustle of London just outside the thatched roof – actors today have it easy.
The students at New Burbage are certainly not engaged at the top of the play, throwing pennies at the poor guards (really? Throwing pennies? WHERE IS THE HOUSE MANAGER!?), but by the time Ellen takes the stage to describe Ophelia’s death (taking Geoffrey’s frustrating, game-changing, too-late-to-matter, kind-of-actually-illegal-to-give-after-opening note), they’re attentive. It wasn’t the movie star actor, or the lavish theatre, it was the words and the story. And, hardeehar, their teacher has fallen asleep. Probably too exhausted from the bus ride he had to take with them sans chaperones. I’d be pooped, too.
Meanwhile, Macbeth is starting to rear its head at Geoffrey, who tries to deny it. Like Macbeth, however, he finds himself struggling against the tide of fortune, taking abuse and encouragement from all sides – especially from Ellen who tells him that she just did something hard so he’d better “suck it up” and direct the fucking play. The only nay-sayer is Nahume, who believes that this is a play that merely shows us evil at work, but fails to teach us anything about ourselves. From his Nigerian background, he’s seen too many psychopaths to be interested in the portrayal of another. We’ll check in with you again, shall we, Nahume?
I was once told that Shakespeare’s characters never lie, yet Geoffrey’s note to Ellen is that Gertrude is lying about Ophelia’s death. I believe that most characters are fully-rounded, and can lie, but when and why would they? Can you think of any examples of when a Shakespearean character lies?
Christopher Henley adds:
My experience running a non-Equity company focusing on the classics is, in several important ways, not comparable to the running of the Stratford-like institution depicted in S&A. I expect the cumulative budget over our 23 years would keep New Burbage going for maybe a year and change. That said, there are many scenes and incidents in this terrific (and terrifically acted) series that ring very true to my experience, even while some of the more fantastical aspects of the plot (the haunting, for instance) require willing suspension of disbelief. Here are some memories and resonances triggered by the first episode of the second season:
-In my experience, Equity actors aren’t shy about enforcing rules such as the one that proscribes a director from giving notes to actors after half-hour call, so it isn’t likely that Geoffrey would have gotten as far as he did assailing his cast during the intermission of a final performance, and it probably wouldn’t have needed a stage manager to call him out on it. (I will also point out that, in my limited experience, Equity actors are also not shy about waiving the more rigid Equity rules for what is perceived to be the good of a production.) If you think it’s funny, though, that the director would give actors notes during the intermission of the final performance, let me tell you that I’ve seen directors give notes to an actor after the final performance. More than once.
-Yes, members of student groups can throw paper at actors. I recall a student matinee of The Scottish Play during which soldiers made exits under audience at Church Street Theatre and a kid was heard to say, “Harsh on the old dude.” It also rang true, however, when the unruly kids became entranced by the performance. It reminded me of how the rowdy groups of young people can also respond in a manner that indicates that they have a more nuanced appreciation of the material than a general audience might have.
-The money-beg lunch Richard takes with the bottled water exec was chillingly true to life. The casually offered advice, as if solving knotty financial challenges can be a quick and easy fix, is something I’ve heard more than once. As is, on the artistic side, the cold-blooded post-mortem Geoffrey hears from the opinionated supporter (played by the marvelous Jackie Burroughs, who I saw play Yelena opposite Peter O’Toole’s Astrov in the 70s).
-So many little backstage dynamics are pitch-perfect: the lack of grace with which Ellen receives the good wishes of non-performer staff; her obliviousness to the animosity felt towards her by the stage manager; the manner in which she and the actor who plays Claudius process news of the draft season through their own ambition for roles; the manner in which Geoffrey contemplates that season choice while balancing his own escape fantasies into the calculus; the manner in which emotional and romantic dimensions to professional involvements can extend dysfunctional or troubled relationships past any sensible limit; and, even if it was a little over-the-top, the way the managing director Richard lets his hair down at the wrap party rang true – in fact, the scenes at the bar capture pretty well, I think, the feel of theatre folk winding down.
It is delightful that the second season is at the level of the first, with so many wonderfully-acted cameos, even in a broadly-drawn part such as the film starlet. This series really is a treat and deserves its reputation.
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.
Stray Observations and Quotes:
The episode opens on a shot of a walker in the lobby. The owner of this walker will literally die in the theatre. This has actually happened in a theatre where I once worked – the woman was brought out of the theatre into a chair, where she passed. This chair became known, morbidly, as the “dead lady chair” for years until it was removed.
“I can hear the word ‘rhubarb’!” – Geoffrey, giving perhaps an appropriate note.
The idea of the kids being engaged in the audience while the old folks sleep and/or die might be considered foreshadowing for my favorite big twist of this season.
“God I hate you…” – Maria, to herself, after another annoying encounter with Ellen.
“Congratulations on a wonderful season” is repeated throughout the hour, though only Anna says what they’re all really thinking: “Congratulations on a wonderful season. Well, half-season. Well, it wasn’t wonderful when Oliver died. Well, anyway, you know, congratulations!”
I’m surprised it took the show this long to bring in the “ghost light” in connection to Oliver.
“What is she?” – Geoffrey . “She was Miss Nebraska…and now she’s a monster.” – Jack, on his awful Hollywood friend.
Is it sad that Richard’s drunken apology for sabotaging Hamlet was ignored, or was it a relief that it wasn’t that big a deal anymore to the others?
“Oliver is dead! I poured him in a river and swans ate him! What do I have to do to get this man out of my life?!” – Geoffrey
“Geoffrey, don’t make me cry. I look way older when I cry!” – Ellen
On a final note, farewell to Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams! She’s off to be a real-life movie star. Can’t have the star of Mean Girls and The Notebook stuck on Canadian TV, can we?
Catch up with us. Previous episodes of Slings and Arrows