Like Hamlet’s murdered dad, the award-winning Canadian TV series Slings & Arrows has been resurrected, now for free on the Internets so all can experience or revisit the fraught fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival.
The smart series was created and written by The Kids in the Hall ensemble member Mark McKinney, actor/playwright Susan Coyne, and comedian Bob Martin, who also perform.
Each of the three seasons, which originally ran from 2003-2006, has six episodes chronicling the artists at odds in a theater modeled on the real life Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.
Paul Gross stars as occasionally insane actor/director Geoffrey Tennant, his real life wife Martha Burns plays his spurned co-star and festival doyenne Ellen Fanshaw, haunted by their former director and friend Oliver Wells (Stephen Ouimette, who performed at Stratford as well as being the associate director in 1996).
Chicago audiences will appreciate the similarities to the Bard in the Windy City, especially after 2016’s Shakespeare 400 celebration. The first season surrounds a challenging production of Hamlet, featuring a friendly skull as Yorick, likely inspired by Chicago’s legendary improv teacher Del Close, who asked to donate his noggin to the Goodman Theatre after his 1999 death for the same purpose. (Hamlet himself is played by Luke Kirby as a young Hollywood heartthrob; he plays Lenny Bruce in the Golden Globe-winner, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”)
While trying to run a small company, “Théâtre Sans Argent,” Tennant also scrambles to pay rent and unclog toilets, tasks intimately familiar to Chicago storefronts as well. The struggle between truthful art and corporate sponsorship, between actors or donors getting opening night seats, is a similar occurrence as well. Both cities can also attest that some viewers prefer to listen to hockey on the QT rather than iambic pentameter, and that stage managers are universally frustrated by needy performers.
Season two documents the mounting of the Scottish play, and the final season unspools King Lear. The love of the source material is apparent, and handled well in the darkly comic frame. It’s a joy to see our northern neighbors recreate a town that supports theater, in a country that knows the work behind art is worth a TV show.
And, like their healthcare, it’s good for the soul. And free.