“Is work enough, or is there something more?” – Father McTeague
Wowzers. LOTS to unpack from that one, folks.
Slings and Arrows, rounding the bend in season 3, headed towards its endgame, shifts tones quite significantly at this point. For the last two seasons we’ve been watching, essentially, a comedy with deep meaning. It’s been a fun and often insightful journey into the world of professional theatre.
Tonight, though, with much talk of age, art, high callings, and simple meaning of things, Slings crosses the line into straight-up drama. There’s still plenty of humor, sure, but a sense of gravity has filled the air.
For me, it became immediately evident once Geoffrey stepped out of his first Lear rehearsal and into the church. The world just looked bleaker. The cinematography changed. It’s no surprise that this happened just before his first counseling session, and his first encounter with a now purposeless Oliver.
Oliver, you see, is now stuck on the earthly plane, fading in and out of existence and yet deprived of his heavenly reward (or punishment…he’ll take either at this point). A deep bitterness is filling him, and he begins to openly question what his life meant and even the purpose of theatre at all. As he puts it:
“Theatre is pointless, I see that now. You struggle to put on a play that was cobbled together from 400 year old hand-me-down fragments. It’s full of contradictions and inconsistencies and the actors don’t know what they’re saying, the audience doesn’t know what they’re hearing, and in the end, what does it get you? Not two pickets to Tittsburgh, I can tell ya that much!”
It’s a terrifying notion, a life wasted, and fuels much of the action this hour. Everyone wants what they do to be valued. Darren doesn’t want Richard butting in. The composer of the musical wants the story to shine through “all this…theatre.” The actors in both the classical and musical companies feel reduced by each other. The cast of Lear works to catch up to the brilliant Charles and his cruel impatience with their learning. And Charles wants to do Lear before he dies. Very very soon.
Charles’ behavior in rehearsal is, quite simply, reprehensible. He’s ruthless to the three women playing his daughters, including Ellen, Barbara, and especially young Sophie as Cordelia. In an ordinary circumstance of “putting on a show”, one wouldn’t put up with the talented asshole … you fire him and find a slightly less talented person who isn’t an asshole. At least, that’s what I’d like to believe, though I imagine opinions on that will differ depending on who the talented asshole in question is.
Geoffrey, though, is seeking higher purpose (as is Oliver), and in Charles’ dying admission, they seem to find it. Do we risk the success of the actual show to give a great man the last gift that theatre can give him? It’s a tough question, and you can see the understandable difficulty of the decision in Geoffrey’s final expression. He knows, in that moment, that helping Charles is likely dooming the show. It is the beginning of his potential downfall. You can see it right there on his face; it’s remarkably precise work from Paul Gross.
(Click the screen to watch the entire episode)
Elsewhere, Richard begins a descent of his own, falling deep into … happiness? I must admit that a happy Richard is a rather frightening sight. His confidence is getting bolstered left and right, from Geoffrey (learning how to control Darren), from the composer, and lastly from poor Anna.
Students of Anna’s sad sad subtext will know by now how she feels about Richard, which makes his cavalier flirtation and drunken kiss seem truly cruel. The worst thing you can do to a person with a crush is treat that crush lightly, and Richard’s “You were nice to me, and I’m horny!” comment says all the worst things it possibly can say to the beset-upon administrator (more beset-upon than ever, having had to pick up virtually ALL of the administrative slack as Richard enters “I can’t…I have rehearsal” mode for the first time).
This is a hard-to-watch episode of TV, in a completely intentional way. Everyone is at their worst, their cruelest. Paul (Sophie’s friend and Lear castmate) gives a masterclass in “douchey classical actor” behavior to the musical company, and the MT crowd, for their part, come off as magnificently vacuous.
I’m not the biggest fan of how musical theatre is made to look in this subplot, though I can at least respect the role it is serving in the overall story of Richard Smith-Jones. Musical theatre, after all, is the man’s true love, his passion, and if we’re telling the story of the “fall of a kingdom”, a harbinger of doom should come disguised as that which the hero loves most. But man, that sing-through was really ridiculous. Those actors are SO empty-headed. Maybe I’m just sensitive. Then again, it contrasts so intensely with the subtle beauty of Charles’ recap of Lear.
Yes, it does indeed seem a storm is coming to New Burbage.
Caitlin Griffin responds.
What happens when the king stops paying attention to his kingdom? With Geoffrey occupied with a difficult Lear and his own personal issues and Richard occupied with the musical, poor Anna is left scrambling to keep the newly-respectable Festival from crumbling around them all, bringing “Poor Anna” to a whole new level. She even forgives Richard for his inattention, prompting him to kiss her against her wishes. What an HR nightmare! Except, as I say often as a joke, there’s no HR in theatre.
For example, no one’s in the Festival’s administration is going to address the “us vs. them” feud between the young classical company actors and the musical performers. They’ve been judging each other since first rehearsals, and are living together in the company house. Any problems they have with each other are going to have to be hashed out on their own.
Administration is also not going to address Charles’s behavior in rehearsals – Ellen, as cast representative, has to take the problem to Geoffrey, as the director, for him to take care of. It’s an imperfect system, but the alternative is for them to have their artistic license stifled ever-so-slightly. It’s important, however, to communicate and have ground-rules laid out in order for the company to feel relaxed and ready to work on material as potentially uncomfortable as King Lear (or a musical about a junked-up hooker named Lulu), but that has clearly not taken place in either rehearsal room as Darren overwhelms the musical with “art” and Charles bullies and berates the other actors in Lear for slights he perceives against the text. His point about listening to the iambic pentameter and allowing it to influence performance is not necessarily a bad point, but he’s being a dick and not a collaborator. It’s not for an actor to give notes or direction, anyhow, another rule that has not been established in this crumbling rehearsal room.
Geoffrey’s doing his best to address his own problems sans HR guidance by going to the family therapist at the local church. Ellen’s pointed out that they are not in the young company anymore, they have to accept that they are getting older. Obviously, there are bigger problems at play, though, as Oliver is back and depressed that he cannot move on. He is sort of stalled in this “marginal existence” and doesn’t see the point to making theatre anymore.
So many theatre artists I’ve known have gone through the same crisis Oliver is having (without having died first, obviously) where they can’t see the point in making art for a declining audience with a declining return in personal investment. What is it that we get out of making theatre? What’s in it for us?
There’s something in it for Charles, at least. While Geoffrey’s coping with being older and under pressure and Oliver’s dealing with being forgotten and feeling useless, Charles is doing the same thing as he reveals that he is dying of cancer – only his response is to need theatre more than ever. He doesn’t want to die comfortable and alone and well-rested. He’s living Lear and wants to take this final chance to play the part he now knows so intimately. He needs the needle, but he also needs the stage.
In rehearsal, earlier, Charles tells the story of the play from Lear’s perspective, and while it feels like a bedtime story (it is, after all, a very similar story to the fairy tales Cap ‘o Rushes and Donkeyskin), its juxtaposition against the plot of the new musical rehearsing with Darren and Richard shows some major differences in entertainment today. Both Lulu and Lear are faced with big decisions and both make the wrong one – but Lulu is rescued by a wealthy john and given a recording career while Lear has his heart broken over and over again. Charles tells us that our moral from Lear is ambiguous, but the musical’s final refrain of “we don’t need the needle” hits us over the head with what we’re supposed to take away. Neither form of entertainment is wrong or bad, they’re different ways of showing us a life outside of our own experience. One uses verse and rhythm to manipulate us, and the other uses music and movement – both are effective media.
We have the whole rest of the season to debate or defend Musicals vs Shakespeare, but I’m going to put these musicals on the table for your consideration:
Your Own Thing (Driver, Hesner, and Apolinar)
The Boys from Syracuse (Rogers and Hart)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (Guare, Shapiro, and MacDermot)
Kiss Me Kate (Porter)
West Side Story (Laurents and Bernstein)
Titus X (Northrip)
The Last Goodbye (Kimmel, adaptor; Shakespeare and Buckley)
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.
“She’s like the ingenue part. Carpathia in King Lear.”- Random MT bimbo. Ooo man do they make these kids seem dumb.
“What do you do on the first day of a musical rehearsal?”- Paul “I dunno … get all gay?”- Sophie (ok, that one’s pretty funny.)
“So the new deal is ‘Anna does all the work’?”- Anna. Sigh.
“Darren is an idiot…and like many idiots, he’s very proud. Your best weapon is flattery.” – Geoffrey to Richard
“As the writer, Nigel is the eunuch of the harem.” – Darren
Jerry is once again understudying the lead.
Lulu doesn’t “need the needle”, but Charles sure does.
“My condolences on your limp dick.” – Oliver
“I saw a chimp brought to a state of ecstasy simply by listening to a C major 7 chord over and over.” – Darren