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The play's the thing on 'Slings'

Canada brings a third season of ever more intimate and accurate goings-on at a Shakespeare festival.

February 16, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

From the parallel universe known as Canada comes a third six-hour season of "Slings & Arrows," the continuing story of a perpetually troubled Shakespeare Festival. Shown here on the Sundance Channel, it is a comedy, and at times a broad one, with some characters that verge on caricature. But it's a comedy about drama, and as fanciful the disarray along the way may be, all the series' many strands gather toward a single end, so that the whole thing comes off with surprising force. Nothing is wasted, or pointlessly digressive. By the end of each season, I am reliably in a puddle on the floor, wiping my eyes on my sleeve.

To be fair, I am built for this stuff, being already a sucker for theatrical stories, and for nearly anything to do with Shakespeare. Everything human is written there, and much that is not, and in iambic pentameter too. I know there are people with no taste for it, but this seems sad to me, like being tone deaf or color blind or immune to the charms of squirrels.

Made by, and played by, people who know the theater -- many have acted or directed the Shakespearean roles we see them act or direct on screen -- "Slings" conveys the weight of lived-through authenticity, and the on-screen dramaturgy is convincing and illuminating. (Textual analysis is part and parcel of the narrative.) Although last year's series, which followed a production of "Macbeth," was perhaps a shade less excellent than the first, about "Hamlet," the new season -- which begins Sunday and concerns "King Lear" -- is big and powerful, a corker.

Every season is the same but different. Much tension builds around the question of whether the show will go on at all, owing in each case to a troublesome lead actor -- this time it's 86-year-old William Hutt, a veteran of 39 seasons at Canada's Stratford Festival, as Charles Kingman, dying of cancer and on heroin to boot but with a voice fit to break rocks. There are the interlocking stories of festival artistic director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) and his former leading lady and on-again, off-again girlfriend, the compulsively apologetic company diva Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), whose long-o "sorrys" are a constant reminder that we are north of the 49th parallel, and of Geoffrey and his predecessor, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), who was run over by a truck at the end of the first hour of Season 1 and has been Geoffrey's ghostly collaborator, sometimes roommate and constant thorn-in-side ever since. (This year, they wind up in couples therapy, after a fashion.) Each season also features a relationship between what used to be called the juvenile and the ingenue (here it's Sarah Polley and Aaron Abrams), and there is always at least one other show being staged alongside the main act, usually directed by the hopelessly avant-garde Darren Nichols (Don McKellar).

And once more company business director Richard Smith-Jones (ex-Kid in the Hall Mark McKinney, who co-wrote the series with Bob Martin and co-star Susan Coyne) will fall under the spell of a stronger force or personality and replay within himself the struggles between art and commerce, the subtle and the obvious, the true and the false, the ridiculous and the sublime that are the ongoing matter of the series as a whole. Given how our eye travels to Gross, who is a big, good-looking leading man in the Old Hollywood mode, it's easy to miss that this is Richard's story as much as Geoffrey's. Indeed, Richard's is the last face you see.

And here as before, the echoes between the play and the players pile up, as Geoffrey becomes a helpful Edgar offstage and on and the production is reduced, like the self-disinheriting king, to nakedness and exile. These resonances are no less satisfying for being recognizably programmatic, just as the finale is no less moving for being made to move you. That is the art part.

We like the things that we like to stick around, or at least to know they're coming back, but I am happy to send "Slings & Arrows" on its way now: A story has been told, the curtain doesn't really need to rise again. And after "King Lear," there's little in Shakespeare that won't seem light by comparison. (Well, "The Tempest," maybe, if they're taking suggestions.)


`Slings & Arrows'

Where: Sundance Channel

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)

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