In the fifth episode of the first season of Slings & Arrows, I AM SO ANGRY. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Slings & Arrows.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of mental illness
I am very UPSET and I have some HARSH WORDS.
This show is willing to have fun with the absurdity inherent in theater, and I really don’t doubt that the people writing it have inside knowledge of what this profession and this community is like. It’s too specific for me to think otherwise. (Unless we’re just dealing with a team of writers who are just… really fucking good at research, I guess.) But for me, the beauty of this show is how sincere it is. Theater is a mess. It’s impossible. It’s ambitious and challenging and terrible for your nerves and your health and I didn’t even do it for that long! I never did it in a professional setting either, so my experience is only limited to high school and college. Yet there’s much to recognize and empathize with in this episode, and the thing that I want to focus on is the heart. Slings & Arrows truly feels like it’s struggling with finding the heart of live theater, and you can view this whole episode through that lens.
Which means that it is fitting that Geoffrey, while claiming to understand the point of Shakespeare and theater, still manages to take a while to find that center again. Part of it is due to his mental illness; part of it is due to fear; part of it is due to the nightmarish logistics of managing all of this under people like Richard and Holly. But when Geoffrey finds it… oh, y’all, it’s just undeniable. We saw it before: the monologue he gave that opened the show at his old theater. The corporate leadership workshop. And then, twice in one episode, he devotes himself to the utter understanding of a character, to interpreting their emotional motivations in a manner that is arresting and electrifying.
Yet each of these moments is received in a completely different way. Bless his heart, but Geoffrey tries to get through to Claire, to get her to understand that her depiction of mental illness and trauma in Ophelia is flawed and it shows. IT’S SO OBVIOUS. And in that moment is a dynamic that many of us are probably familiar with: people in creative fields refusing to listen to the people whom are being depicted in a work of fiction. Geoffrey gives it a genuine shot to try to ground Ophelia’s characterization in her life of trauma and fear, to explain that she’s not just being weird and quirky and random. Claire even acknowledges that she doesn’t have Geoffrey’s “experience” with “madness,” but she still refuses to take any of his direction and criticism. That shot of Richard leading Geoffrey away is both comical and devastating because you can see Claire doing the same banal and offensive shit in the background.
For what it’s worth, the show could do with some specificity in Geoffrey. Not all mental illnesses are even remotely the same, and the script just refers to it all as being “crazy” or “insane,” which sometimes makes it had to grasp what the show is going for. But that scene was so vital to understanding Claire’s flawed process: she decided being stoned put her in the same headspace as Ophelia, and then she wouldn’t hear any feedback on it whatsoever.
When this happens again, though, the context is much, much different. I was so pleased that this episode delved into Jack’s process in such detail. Prior to this, all we saw was his physical style and his use of modern vernacular to improvise the lines in order to determine his character’s motivation. The former example was… clumsy, to say the least. The latter, however, was a hint towards Jack’s sincere attempt to do this play and this character justice. And I am fascinated by that! It would have been so much easier to have him be a fool with talents that worked in only one genre or medium, but this? Oh, it’s so, so much better. That scene where Jack and Geoffrey discuss the famed monologue of Hamlet is incredible, one of the finest moments of the season, and it really gets down to the challenge of putting on a Shakespeare production. How do you keep something interesting when it’s been interpreted in so many different ways? How can a monologue that virtually everyone knows feel important and energetic when it is so instantly recognizable? That is where the sincerity of this show matters and why I’m convinced this show was written by people who have been in theater. Those sort of conversations are so important to putting on a production, and it gave this episode a gravity that I adored.
There’s also an oversight here, though, and I do understand why so much time was devoted to Jack. But after granting Kate the opportunity she’s been aiming for this season, I was confused by the decision not to show us her first attempt at Ophelia. We see Jack struggling to nail his character, but what of Kate? Did she rise to the occasion? Granted, we don’t see any of dress rehearsal, but I really think that Kate deserves space within the show for this specific part of her growth. She’s (mostly) dealt with Claire’s shitty comments about her relationship with Jack, but I’d like her to have a plot that doesn’t have to do with him.
I’m also becoming real worried about what Ellen is gonna do with Sloane? That relationship… does not look good. At all. The guy is infatuated with her, and she doesn’t seem him that way. He’s also such an odd match for her. He’s young and pretty and devoted, but that doesn’t seem particularly fulfilling for her either. I also cannot get over the fact that he gave her a Gameboy. It’s so purely in character for him, of course, but… lord! Neither of them really understand the other person’s interests. THIS IS NOT GOING TO END WELL.
Which brings me to the anger. Because y’all, I am angry. I AM SO UPSET AT RICHARD AND HOLLY. They’ve both steeped to low, low things in the past, and they clearly have no real problem with betraying the people who have been friendly with them in the past. But what these two do here is just… monstrous. It’s easier to talk about Holly, who appears to have intentionally given May another heart attack with Shakespeareville. I’m still reeling from the very idea of that place, and I get why it was so horrifying to May. It’s like a manifestation of the worst sort of nightmare a theater lover could have. In Holly’s vision, this “theme park” of Shakespeare is about exploitation and profit, a chance to turn the Bard’s work into a comfortable and “accessible” means to make a shit ton of money. The worst part—well, aside from Holly giving May a heart attack again—is that PEOPLE WOULD TOTALLY BUY INTO THIS. I know that Holly isn’t wrong about how well this would sell!!! I HATE IT! And up to this point, she has gotten away with all of her scheming, and I HAVE ANGRY WORDS FOR HER.
Richard, meanwhile, is taking after Holly in all the wrong ways. He’s taken up condescension and manipulation as tactics. He plants the notion of failure in Ellen so that she’ll bait Geoffrey onstage; he tricks Geoffrey into giving him a season order that is artistically sound and creative, but can easily be out-shadowed by his profit-making plan; he unnerves Geoffrey by revealing that the seven preview performances have been cut; and then, in his worst move, he undermines Jack just minutes before Jack takes the stage. He knew that Jack was self-conscious about his acting, and his backhanded compliments were totally intended to make him doubt himself! AND JACK TRIED SO, SO HARD, AND I AM VERY, VERY ANGRY. Ugh, how are these two ever going to come back from this???
The video for “Mirror Up to Nature” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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