SLINGS AND ARROWS–T.V. FOR THE EDUCATED

An entertaining and still literate–nay, literary–television program? I was about to write a piece on Sling and Arrows and ran across this review while looking for the lyrics to the opening and closing songs. I couldn’t do much better, so reprint it here without permission:

‘Slings and Arrows’:
Submitted by Carole Gordon on July 5, 2006 – 2:07am

“A work of beautifully crafted genius from start to finish … Productions of this quality are rare indeed, and five stars seem barely sufficient.” (Nigel Andrew, Mail on Saturday, UK). The Canadian 6-part miniseries ‘Slings and Arrows’ has had TV reviewers around the globe reaching for their superlatives. Can any show possibly warrant that kind of hyperbole? Well yes, actually, because this show really is that good.

Yet most viewers will likely not know of this show, let alone have seen it. For this is one of those gems which has been hidden away on the outer reaches of the cable channels, such as The Movie Network (Canada), Sundance (US) and Artsworld (UK).

The six-episode series centres around the fictional New Burbage Shakespeare Festival, show-casing life’s dramas on-stage and off. But don’t let the fact that this involves Shakespeare deter you. This is drama of rare quality; smart, slick, witty and brilliantly acted by an ensemble cast of Canada’s finest.

The show starts on the opening night of the Festival’s insipid production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, directed by the creatively moribund Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette). At the same time, in a derelict theatre on the other side of town, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) is struggling with faulty electrics and a blocked toilet as he tries to stage ‘The Tempest’. Welles and Tennant were once close friends. Together they produced a definitive version of ‘Hamlet’, in the midst of which Tennant suffered a breakdown, jumping melodramatically into Ophelia’s grave during a performance. The third character of the central triangle is Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who was once Tennant’s lover, and Ophelia to his Hamlet.

Welles dies a disappointed man early in the piece, returning as an apparition to unsettle and taunt Tennant, much as the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunts the Danish prince, only with rather more witty one-liners and existential musings.

Behind the scenes, the Festival’s business manager (Mark McKinney) is manipulated by corporate witch, Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin), who envisages the future of the Festival – and her opportunity to make a fortune – as a Shakespeare theme park with fewer classics and more musicals, providing an interesting commentary on the clash between commercialism and creativity in the theatre.

Don McKellar does a wonderfully eccentric turn as a pretentious director, who tries to turn the Festival’s new production of ‘Hamlet’ into a pyrotechnic pop opera and ends up duelling with Tennant.

The show also contains some delicious real life parallels. A Hollywood star, Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), has been brought into the Festival to attract the punters, echoing Keanu Reeves’s turn as Hamlet in Winnipeg in 1995 (a connection confirmed in the production notes), but there may also be at least a passing nod to Paul Gross’s own outing in the role at the Stratford Festival in 2000, a move dismissed by the Canadian media at the time as ‘stunt casting’. The pundits then were proved wildly wrong; but this experience gives Gross’s portrayal of the faith displayed by Tennant in Crew’s ability to deliver, additional levels of poignancy.

Then there is Kate, understudy to Ophelia and on the cusp of getting her big break, who is played with great charm by Rachel McAdams, now just about to become one of Hollywood’s hottest properties.

As well as being thoroughly involving, tightly structured and totally engaging, every single one of the characters is beautifully drawn, with cracking dialogue. In other hands, this show could have been full of snark and sarcasm, but this is clearly the work of people who love the theatre. It’s infused with warmth and affection, while still recognizing that egos in the theatre can be as large as a medium-sized planet. As the theatre caretaker says, “If I was bothered by vomit, I wouldn’t work in the theatre.”

The old theatrical saying goes, “Leave them wanting more”. Sit down to watch the first episode of ‘Slings and Arrows’ and chances are you’ll still be there several hours later as the sixth episode ends, begging for more. Fortunately, there is more, with two more seasons already filmed.

The DVD also contains:

• trailer (which reveals rather a lot of the storyline, so save it until after you’ve seen the episodes)
• bloopers
• deleted scenes (well worth the price of admission)
• production notes
• cast information
• lyrics to the two songs specially written for the show, “Call the Understudy” and “Cheer Up Hamlet”.

The latter song, which opens each episode of the show, brilliantly chastises the melancholy Prince:

“Your incessant monologizing fills the castle with ennui
Your antic disposition is embarrassing to see
And by the way, you sulky brat, the answer is ‘To be!'”

Or, in this case, “To buy!” Definitely, “To buy!”

Slings and Arrows: A+
Extras: B+
Final grade: A

ON ON BEAUTY–The Zadie Smith sensation

My short grapevine indicates that Zadie Smith’s On Beauty  is all the rage these days not only among individual readers, but among book clubs. And it deserves to be.
My other sample of Smith was The Autograph Man, which I found exciting and adventurous, full of exciting characters and situations, off-center dialogue and viewpoints, and yeasty with modern/age-old themes. Smith is at home in the mind of women or men, in academia or the ghetto, among blacks or whites, in England or America. Her love and mastery of language infuses both description and dialogue. However, in the end I thought The Autograph Man a bit strident and self-consciously iconoclastic. Not so On Beauty.
Set in a fictional Massachusetts University (small, private, liberal arts) Town near Boston, the novel centers on the Belsey family. The Belsey’s are a mix of race, class, and nationality that might have been considered too oddball to be believable even a half-century ago. Today, however, a fat Florida-born black woman married to a white English working-class-cum-academic and their mixed-race children seems well within the pale. As we enter their lives, the couple’s three children are on the brink of adulthood, the daughter (middle child) enrolled not only in the University but in her father’s class. The father-professor, Howard, is involved in a bitter academic feud with a (black, Carribean descended) London academic named Tipps over–of all things–an interpretation of a Rembrandt painting. In a manner that I can’t describe believably but which Smith renders natural and inevitable (it’s the magic writers can do, isn’t it? Transform “Are you kidding?” into “Of course?”), the argument morphs from art history to affirmative action to homophobia to family values and spills beyond the pages of academic journals to flesh and blood confrontation among members of both families.
As the dynamics proceed, we’re inside the minds and hearts of every member of the family, looking at the world through the eyes of mixed-race children who have their own special identity struggles with a dimension that most of us can only imagine. As the principal of a middle school attended by quite a number of such students, I can attest to the pain and confusion of their situation. Faced with one of those government race-identification forms, one student said, “They want me to choose between my mother and my father, right?” Right.
We’re confronted by strong-father/weak-father, liberal/conservative (“Taking the ‘liberal’ out of ‘liberal arts.’), plenty of race, sex, street, and halls of academe. All of that wrapped in powerful writing. And don’t let the MFA gurus tell you that your protagonists need to be strong, sympathetic characters. Not if you’re Smith.
You can’t sum up a work of this dimension in a phrase, but Smith comes as close as you can with the what to me is the telling line from the title poem (Not Smith’s): “The beautiful don’t lack the wound.”
Read this book.
1.0

MEDITATIONS ON MURDALAND–A NEW CRIME MAG

I’m startled to realize that it’s been a month since I added anything to my blog space. Flu, taxes, my annual stint with community theater (I direct), and that old standby procrastination have combined to delay me. But I’m back. To cheering crowds, I’m sure. So onward.
Murdaland Magazine is a brand new crime fiction (Yes, you lit fiction aficionados, it’s a [shudderandcollapse] genre mag) publication from an outfit called Mug Shot Press, and the first issue is terrific. The writing is high quality, the contributors ranging from well-established authors such as Richard Bausch to an ex-Sandinista from Managua. The story situations range from perversion that borders on–no crosses into–gothic to battlefield crime. You may think battlefields are crimes in themselves, but we’re not discussing that here.
What brought me to the magazine was an e-mail from my main mentor, Les Edgerton, whose fine story “Felon” is perhaps the finest of a fine lot. You’ve never been inside the mind of a criminal the thrilling way Edgerton takes you there–unless you’re into crime yourself, in which case you’ll be abel to identify and thrill even more. What’s more important, though, is the way Les subordinates the crime to the psychology. The Lit Fiction crowd will immediately label and dismiss “Felon” as an “action-driven” piece unworthy of consideration. But they’ll be missing a great experience, as will anyone who lets Murdaland go by.  The main character in ”Felon” presents as a man full of bravado who claims to have committed as many as ten or twenty robberies/burglaries in a single night. He’s the very definition of incorrigible, assaulting the world for thrills. By the end of the tale, however, we know we’ve been living inside the heart of someone crippled by fear and self-loathing. And check out the last sentence. Except don’t read it till you’ve read the rest or you’ll miss the meaning.
A nice pair to “Felon” is “Nasty Jay” by Cortright McMeel, who is, incidentally, the founder of Mug Shot Press. (If I found a publishing company to print my own stuff, is that vanity publishing? Not in this case. McMeel is a real writer.) McMeel’s protagonist has a number of similarities to Edgerton’s, but he’s nowhere near as self-aware. He’s a man who wants the world set up his own way and has no patience with those who would rather live their lives in a manner not matching his prescription. Like “Felon,” “Nasty Jay” is full of action and tension, but if you open yourself to truly reading the story, character dominates  The final action sequence is so startling and terrifyingly abrupt, I had to put the book down a minute before I could read the short denouement–and another great final sentence.
The endings of both stories carry implications of philosophy and thought that echo beyond their own action and characters. For “Felon,” it’s a dive into life’s mix of choices and circumstances, the conundrum of how much power we have to shape our lives as opposed to how much our lives shape us. For “Nasty Jay,” it’s a look into what constitutes authority, what brutality. At least those are themes that struck me hardest.
And there are plenty of other worthy pieces in Murdaland. It’s got more grit and gore than Ellery Queen, and Murdaland is not Agatha Christie Land. But the writing gets to the heart. That is, after all, where the blood is. Check it out.

Sitting up

THIS IS A THING TO BE KEPT

Things Kept, Things Left Behind is a coming-out celebration for a terrific writer named Jim Tomlinson. The inability to finish reading short story collections is one of my shameful flaws. I write the things, but I struggle to read them.  I buy Best American Short Stories nearly every year, read several, let the rest languish.  But the why of that failing is a subject for another blog because Things Kept, Things Left Behind is an exception–a group of short stories that captivated me.
You can begin with some of the names–Arnel Embry, Grandpa Coy, Dexter Chalk, Cousin Shuey– wonderfully evocative of the rural Kentucky environment where the stories are set.
You can go on to the smells.You’ll never run into a writer with a keener nose; and the images, impressive in themselves, don’t simply add texture to the prose, they become a primary tool for creating plot and character:
“She liked the familiar smell of him, slightly musky, with a hint of machine oil that lingered even after he’d showered. It was the smell of his work, the smell of lathes and grinders and milling machines. And it was not so different…from the smell of her father, the smell of locomotives.”
You can go on to the sentences–simple, clear, incisive, Carver-like. Try these:
“Sometimes she thinks of herself as a howl. The wail of a coyote, maybe, or a lone banshee, a shriek dying away in the night without reaching ears.”
or
“He feels the sting of her pity. It’s the last thing he wants from a wife.”
Add to these the common setting, the unerring sense of how psychological conflict evokes emotional and physical combat, and you end up with a series of tales that approach novelistic unity.
This is a debut collection, and the jacket notes say that Tomlinson is “hard at work on a novel.” I’d gladly read another collection from Jim, but I must confess, I’m really looking forward to the novel.
In the meantime, folks, go out and get this one. If you want an autographed copy, e-mail me, and I’ll tell you how.

sitting up clapping

FLAP YOUR WINGS–A POEM

To fly

Flap your wings,

Even if you’re an airplane

Even though any sane passenger wants

You to keep

Still,

Unyielding,

So as not to fly apart,

Disintegrate,

And leave him/her flying on his/her own,

Flapping unfeathered arms.

 

Even if you’re that airplane

You need to flap your wings

Even if the passenger looking out the

Fuselage window sees your waving

Wing as a harbinger

Of disintegration

And shrinks inside himself

You need to flap your wings

Or plunge

As if your Icarus wax had melted,

Pooled,

Encasing a few downy flakes,

And Ruined the finish on the table.