Slings And Arrows is a Canadian sitcom about a theater festival loosely based on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. Its hero, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), in addition to dealing with the seemingly endless problems (or should I say, “Slings and Arrows?”) mounting a Shakespeare play, is also worried he’s going mad, since he keeps seeing the ghost of his old mentor/ director Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette). For a recap of Season One, click here to read my review.
The premise of the Series
I describe this show as a funny, tragic, bittersweet comedy about drama. It’s The Office for Shakespeare Nerds!
Season 2 Retrospective
Whereas Season One was sometimes extremely dramatic and raw, Season Two is much more relaxed; it feels a little bit more like The Office for Shakespeare nerds. Each episode focuses much more on the work-a-day frustrations of running a theater. We see it through multiple perspectives and even multiple shows- we see one director not being able to complete Romeo and Juliet, we see another trying to cast for Pirates of Penzance, and finally we see Geoffrey trying to fulfill Oliver’s posthumous concept for Macbeth.
“You just need to sell more tickets.”
“It’s not that simple, we’re talking about THEATER!”
Season Two doesn’t just focus on the artistic side. The theater is going broke, and Richard is begging for money from sponsors and the government. Susan Coyne as the overworked Executive Assitant Anna also has her hands full taking calls, organizing the schedule, and of course her new additional frustration with the internship program.
This particularly made me laugh the first time I saw the show because at the time, I was interning for the American Shakespeare Center. I know what it’s like to feel like if you’re out of your depth but excited, thinking that this is going to be your big break, (while also being keenly aware that your job is mostly obviously getting coffee and writing notes in the prompt book). I have to give a shout-out to Grace Lynn Kung who plays intern Emily Wu; she does a great job of portraying this mixture of anxiety and youthful desire to please.
To be brief, this season has a much greater level of authenticity and realism that shows the series graduating from a soap opera into a real workplace comedy.
Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennet
In the first three episodes, Geoffrey is afraid to put on Macbeth because he thinks that Oliver will come back. Just like Season one, Geoffrey is still not sure whether Oliver is actually a ghost or is actually a manifestation of Geoffrey’s madness. As he continues to work on the production, he and Oliver quarrel as conflicting directors, and their private struggles as friends and colleagues even spill over into rehearsals, which threatens the production itself.
Gerand Wynt Davies as Henry Breedlove
The main curse in this production is the old guard of actors who are threatened by Jeffrey’s leadership; they got used to Oliver’s more relaxed style and they do not want Geoffrey shaking things up. Chiefly among them is Brian Cabbott and Henry Breedlove played by Geraint Wyn Davies, (who is really a classically trained actor from the Royal Shakespeare Company). Brian starts out by playing Claudius in Hamlet in the tail end to Season One. He’s disrespectful to Geoffrey and criticizes him to his face. Like Prince Hal dismissing Falstaff, Geoffrey dismisses Brian from the company.
One theme of Macbeth that is echoed again and again in Season two is middle-aged people feeling threatened by the young. It’s shown in Geoffrey’s clashes with Henry and Brian, with Richard being seduced by the hotshot young marketers at Froghammer, and especially with Darren Nichols, who is forced to direct Romeo and Juliet, and clashes with the young and idealistic Sarah (Joanne Kelly). She gives a passionate performance both as Juliet and as a young actress who desperately wants to do her best, and actually asks Geoffrey to direct her behind Darren’s back, as this adorable scene illustrates:
What’s great about this scene is it doesn’t just set up the star-crossed romance between Sarah and her costar; it also cleverly points out the similarities between Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. As you see at the end, Geoffrey is inspired by Sarah’s performance and it carries over to how he directs Henry and Ellen in Macbeth. Both couples are impulsive and reactive- they love pitting themselves against the world, and that is one reason why their affairs end in tragedy. Many scholars echo this interpretation, that if Romeo and Juliet had lived, they might have become the Macbeths. Seeing the balance between backstage drama, clever Shakespearean commentary, brilliant Shakespearean acting, and workplace comedy is at the heart of why this show works, and it’s handled masterfully in each and every episode of Season 2.
My favorite episodes
Episode 1: Season’s End
The Departure of Rachel McAdams As Kate
In the first episode, there is the tearful goodbye of Luke Kirby and Rachel McAdams, mirroring the fact that, as big Hollywood stars the two of them were unable to continue for a second season, even though everyone involved from the cast to the creators wishes they could. The life imitates art aspect of this episode makes it particularly tearful and sad to watch and yet it is a thoughtful and deeply well-earned sendoff.
Episode 2: Fallow Time
One of my favorite episodes is technically the Christmas episode of the show, and as such, Oliver gives Geoffrey a gift- he leaves him costume sketches, set designs, and notes on the play’s concept, which the ghost of Oliver explains in detail to Geoffrey and the audience. Maybe this kind of glimpse into the nitty gritty of theatrical concepts will only appeal to theater nerds, but I truly love it.
Episode 4: Fair Is Foul and Foul is Fair
While all the drama onstage is going on, Anna is getting some romantic attention from a playwright, unaware that (SPOILER ALERT), she’s using him for ideas for his script. In a way, this subplot shows us another aspect of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet; in both these stories, the men use women for their own gain. Romeo arguably is using Juliet to play out his romantic fantasies, and Macbeth certainly depends on Lady Macbeth’s courage and cunning in order to go through with their plan to kill the king. Not surprisingly, all three romances end in tragedy.
Meanwhile on the stage during Macbeth rehearsals, Geoffrey is trying to get an organic, serious performance out of Henry, but he thinks he knows more than his director so Geoffrey has no choice but to fire him as he did Brian.
Episode 5: Steeped In Blood
In this episode Geoffrey puts the lovable understudy Jerry onstage as Macbeth. What’s interesting in this episode is, while Henry plays Macbeth as a larger-than-life soldier, Jerry plays him as sort of an everyman, letting himself be seduced by power and delusions of grandeur. Looking back, I actually owe a lot to this episode, since it helped inspire my own interpretation of Macbeth.
Episode Six: Birnam Wood
If I were going to pick one episode of Slings And Arrows for the time capsule, one episode of the show to stick up against every other show ever made, it would be “Birnam Wood.” I don’t honestly know if this is the best episode of the show—the series finale proper is probably that—but it’s my favorite episode of the show. It makes me cackle with delight, thrill with excitement, and smile with sympathy every time I watch it.
The season finale gives us a fully formed version of Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet: we get to see the designs, the technical rehearsals, the marketing, everything that the whole season was building up to into, not one but two complete theatrical performances!
First, Geoffrey cooks up an elaborate scheme to touch Darren’s heart and get him to scrap his cynical concept for Romeo and Juliet.
As you can see, the scheme works, and Darren has an epiphany during tech rehearsals.
In the show’s climax, for 20 minutes we get to see Henry perform as Macbeth and Ellen as Lady M. Geoffrey reluctantly re-hires Henry, but he refuses to let him walk all over him or his production. I won’t go into spoilers, but let’s just say Henry finally learns his lesson, with a little help from Oliver:
As I said last time, anyone who’s ever had a boring office job loves and recognizes the characters from “The Office,” while those of us in the theater recognize the crazy directors, the hopeful understudies, the divas, and the money-grubbing management. What’s great about this season is that, while Season one focused on them all broken apart, this season has them all coming together, using their talents to put on two excellent shows. After seeing the characters grow and change professionally and personally, we feel like proud parents and this fictional theater company feels more like a family, but any family can be broken… stay tuned.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been on the air for over 20 years. The show originally aired in 1988 on KTMA TV in Eden Prairie MN. Since then it’s spawned over 13 seasons, (still going strong on Netflix), a huge cult following, and countless parodies in many versions of pop culture.The premise is that three guys watch bad movies and make sarcastic comments about the acting, sets, costumes, etc. The show thrives on meta-commentary, obscure references, and satirizing anything and anyone.
Full circle for the show
Kevin Murphy, one of the show’s creators actually had reservations of even doing the episode, as he is a big Shakespeare fan. This makes sense as I would argue that the very premise of the show lies in Shakespeare, and in particular, Hamlet. As I said in the last paragraph, the show thrives on reference humor, meta-commentary, and satire, and one person who loves that kind of humor is in fact, Shakespeare’s own drama critic- Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.
In Act III, Scene ii of Hamlet, there is a play within a play, where Hamlet sits back and makes sarcastic comments about how bad the production is:
Hamlet. We shall know by this fellow. The players cannot keep counsel; they’ll tell all. Ophelia. Will he tell us what this show meant?2035 Hamlet. Ay, or any show that you’ll show him. Be not you asham’d to show, he’ll not shame to tell you what it means. Ophelia. You are naught, you are naught! I’ll mark the play. Pro. For us, and for our tragedy, Here stooping to your clemency, We beg your hearing patiently. [Exit.] Hamlet. Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring? Ophelia. ‘Tis brief, my lord. Hamlet. As woman’s love.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii
If Hamlet had two robot companions, he’d essentially be doing an episode of the show!
Begin Murderer! Pox! Leave thy damnable faces and begin!
Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii.
So it’s an interesting kind of irony that after 13 years, MST3K finally got around to review the very source of their humor. Not only is Hamlet highly meta and satirical, Many educators, myself included, say that teaching Shakespeare with a healthy dose of irreverence is a good way to draw in new students and get them interested in the play:
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s “Hamlet ” episode reveals a common reaction to Hamlet that often goes unspoken by high school and college students too afraid to sound anti-intellectual. Despite this irreverent tone, however, this unique appropriation of Shakespeare adds to our understanding of a play that today very few read and even fewer see performed. As an author who reveled in making serious, yet sometimes playful, fun at human weakness, I think this respectful irreverence would have delighted the Bard were able to see it.
Dan Mills. “Mystery Science Theater 3000, Shakespeare, and Postmodern Canonization,” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 17.2 (2015): 206-227.
3. Divisive episode
This episode is somewhat controversial among the MST3K fandom. While almost everyone agrees it was a good idea for Mike and the bots to do Shakespeare, many fans question the choice to do this Shakespeare. The 1961 film was produced for German TV, and starred Maximillian Schell, (who would later win an Oscar for his performance in “Judgement at Nuremberg).”
First of all, the film is very slow and badly paced with no distinctive production choices. The sets and costumes are generic, (except for the Liberace-looking ghost), and the cinematography is competent but dull. Finally it’s Hamlet; the play that even Mike Nelson called “The greatest work of fiction ever written.” Even with the dreary set, the bad dubbing, and nonexistent pacing, it’s still a good story with magnificent dialogue, and the cast is still pretty good. Perhaps the ultimate backhanded compliment Mike Nelson and company could have handled is that even the worst production of Hamlet is very difficult to riff. Still, when the jokes land, they hit extremely well. Here are some of my favorites:
C’mon, man. We’ve seen like eight ghosts, none of ’em have been even close to my dad. MIKE NELSON
Rap artist, The Notorious K.I.N.G.”
Hamlet: To die: to sleep. Crow: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing right now, Bub.
Hamlet: TO BE OR NOT TO BE…. and lose the name of action.
Mike: So I’m a chicken for not stabbing myself—that’s all you needed to say!
[Having stabbed an intruder behind Gertrude’s tapestry, Hamlet discovers it is not the King, but Polonius.] Hamlet: Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool! Crow [as Polonius]: Oh, right, it’s my fault you killed me.
On the one hand, it’s great to watch the MST3K guys look at a piece of classic theater, especially since the show owes a lot to Shakespeare. That said, they never acknowledge this, not even during the play within a play scene. In addition, the critics are right that the film is so dreary it’s hard to make fun of. I would love to see how the bots and Mike riff on Branaugh or Gibson! Finally, maybe part of the problem was that Hamlet has already been riffed and mocked before. As the clip above from The Reduced Shakespeare Company shows, gently ribbing on the plot and characters of Hamlet has been done before. Once something becomes famous as the best or the worst, it becomes a target for mockery. I was hoping that my favorite riffers would have more fun riffing on the play that helped create their art form. That said, this show is a classic comedy series, and this episode always makes me smile.
Since Twelfth Night is coming up, I’m going to review a blast from the past, the Amanda Bynes teen comedy remake of Twelfth Night called “She’s The Man”.
Some of you might remember that the late 90s and early 2000s were the heyday of Hollywood remakes of Shakespeare: Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrman, 10 Things I Hate About You, (The Taming Of the Shrew) “O” (Othello), and even “Get Over It” (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). Shakespeare was actually hot for a few years and many writers were riding his doublet.
Sadly, not all Shakespeare remakes are created equal. Most of them were created with care to try and either show love for the text (as in Romeo and ‘O’) or to improve or contemporize the text like in ‘O‘ and “10 Things I Hate About You,” (which interestingly, both starred Julia Styles). “She’s The Man” doesn’t feel like a faithful retelling of “Twelfth NIght” despite the fact that it keeps most of the characters and the central conceit of the story- a girl disguising herself as her twin brother, going to a new place called Ilyria and inspiring love in both a powerful man and a beautiful woman.
Amanda Bynes as Sebastian is a characature of 90’s bro culture and rarely ever plays her male role straight or convincingly. Nobody would be fooled into thinking this girl is a boy.
Bynes’ Viola rarely challenges anything or does a good job playing soccer until the end of the movie. Her main reason for her masquerade is that her brother forced to do it, so he can run away to become a musician.
I also don’t like that Sebastian never seems to impress or endeer the coach. If her goal was to prove that girls are just as good as guys, he should be her focus, but they rarely evershare the screen.
This Viola also never challengers Duke (her love interest played by Channing Tatum). One of the best parts of Shakespeare’s version is that Duke Orsino is a mopey would-be incel who puts women on a pedestal one minute, and condemns them the next. One of the best things about his relationship with Viola is that it makes him better able to appreciate women, but his counterpart in She’s All That has no such epithany.
I do want to give a shoutout to Laura Ramsey as Olivia . She frankly is a better actress then Bynes and plays Olivia’s unrequited love for Viola very well. Initially, she gets a copy of Sebastian’s song lyrics and she’s smitten by Sebastian’s words, rather than his looks. This makes you hope the real Sebastian will return.
Below is a montage of the jokes in the film. I hope you notice that most of them are very lowbrow and pretty cliche, even for teen movies. At 5:20 is the only really good part of the movie- it explains why Olivia’s love for Viola is funny and tragic. Guys are taught never to open up to women, but women want emotional connections. Men are taught women aren’t equal, but women yearn for acceptance. Viola in disguise has no concept of these unspoken ‘rules’ of male behavior, so she seems like the perfect man to Olivia- someone who treats her like an equal, isn’t afraid to open up, and is also male. The fact that she’s actually developing feelings for a woman is what makes it funny and tragic.
In conclusion, I’m kind of glad this Shakespeare rom-com is slinking into obscurity since it adds nothing and waters down the original to oceanic degrees. Frankly, I think there was a much better adaptation of Twelfth Night that, although it changed the names, location, and text, was a more thought-provoking and insightful rendition of the story- the 1996 animated film, Mulan.