Slings and Arrows (Blu-ray)
The Complete Collection
You don’t have to be a theater buff to enjoy Slings and Arrows, just as you don’t have to be a funeral director to enjoy Six Feet Under, a mobster to enjoy The Sopranos, an ad employee for Mad Men or a serial killer for Dexter. Like every great series, S&A creates its own world and teaches you everything you need to know to find your way around. The entertainment value comes from vivid characters doing things that are unexpected, interesting and, in the case of S&A, frequently hilarious. The fact that the series is set in show business provides ample opportunity for outsize personalities and eccentric behavior. That it’s a part of show business (the theater) whose relevance to contemporary life is becoming ever more tenuous only increases the pressure and makes all those egos that much more desperate – and funnier.
S&A was created and largely written by three people who thoroughly know their subject: Mark McKinney, a former member of the comedy troupe, The Kids in the Hall; Susan Coyne, an experienced actor, writer and director; and Bob Martin, whose wedding present to his wife was a musical about them that would eventually become the Broadway hit, The Drowsy Chaperone. (It opens with the line: “I hate the theater.”) Coyne and McKinney took major roles in S&A, while Martin served as a producer and appeared briefly in season 1. Every episode was directed by Canadian director Peter Wellington, ensuring a continuity of vision.
Studio: Acorn Media Group
Film Length: app. 14 hours
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p (but see discussion under “Video”)
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 (seasons 1-3); English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (season 3)
Subtitles: English SDH
Disc Format: 5 25GB + 1 50GB (season 3, disc 2)
Package: 3 standard double Blu-ray cases in a single cardboard slip cover
Original Broadcast Dates: Season 1: Nov. 3-Dec. 8, 2003 (Canada); Aug.-Sept. 2005 (U.S.); Season 2: June 27-Aug. 1, 2005 (Canada); Feb.-Mar. 2006 (U.S.); Season 3: July 24-Aug. 28, 2006 (Canada); Feb.-Mar. 2007 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 26, 2010
| Cheer up, Hamlet! |
Chin up, Hamlet!
Buck up, you melancholy Dane.
So your uncle is a cad
Who murdered Dad and married Mum;
That's really no excuse to be as glum as you've become.
In the fictional town of New Burbage, Ontario, there’s a Theatre Festival with a storied past and a lousy present. Once upon a time, it offered Shakespeare productions that thrilled audiences and wowed critics. And now? The audiences are bored, and the company’s biggest critical fan is the local paper’s Basil Cruikshank (Sean Cullen), who says the productions are comfortable – “like an old boot”. And that’s when he’s being complimentary.
It’s all too much to bear for the company’s artistic director, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), as he prepares to direct the current season’s flagship production, a new staging of Hamlet. Seven years earlier, Oliver directed a Hamlet that became legendary for both its brilliance and its disastrous outcome (of which more shortly). Now he’s saddled with a bitchy and talentless Ophelia in the person of Claire Donner (Sabrina Grdevich, who’s great at acting badly), because she’s the niece of a board member. He’d be better off with her understudy, the fresh-faced Kate McNab (Rachel McAdams, just before The Notebook and Wedding Crashers made her famous). Worse, Oliver’s been forced to cast one of the stage’s most demanding roles with a Hollywood action star, Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), just to add pizzazz to the box office. Jack has no theater experience, but he’s taking the role to burnish his credentials as an actor. Any similarity to Keanu Reeves’s 1995 Hamlet at the Manitoba Theatre Center must surely be a coincidence.
A constant thorn in Oliver’s side (and everyone else’s) is the company’s reigning diva, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns), who is one of the great comic characters of the series. Vain, shallow, self-absorbed, temperamental and constantly apologizing – a running gag is the seemingly infinite variety with which Ellen is able to utter the word “sorry!” – Ellen is the essence of what makes a diva effective on stage and impossible in real life. She’s hateful and pitiful at the same time. But under all that desperate self-deception, she’s capable of great insight. (Just don’t tell anyone.)
The business side of the New Burbage Festival is overseen by Richard Smith-Jones (series co-creator McKinney). Nerdy and bespectacled, Richard suffers from the frequent complaint of businesspeople who devote their lives to managing artistic types, which is that he feels unappreciated. Do these impractical artists think that props, sets, costumes and salaries just appear out of thin air? Richard relies heavily on Anna (co-creator Susan Coyne), who runs the office and seems able to move comfortably between both camps, probably because she’s mild-mannered and no one feels threatened by her.
As season 1 begins, Richard faces a crisis. Not-for-profit theater companies like New Burbage rely on corporate sponsors, and Richard is summoned to the office of his single largest donor, the Lenstrex Corporation, just as his usual contact is leaving for Anchorage, Alaska. It seems that Lenstrex has just been acquired by an American conglomerate. The new liaison is a brash, blond Texan named Holly Day (“Don’t bother making any jokes; I’ve heard them all before”). She’s played by Jennifer Irwin, currently on Eastbound and Down. Holly is an unabashed corporate shark with an agenda of her own that is gradually revealed as the season unfolds.
But the opening shot of season 1 isn’t at the New Burbage Festival. It’s at a tiny operation called “Théâtre sans argent” (theater without money), and it shows the artistic director plunging a toilet. There is no better metaphor for S&A’s irreverent attitude toward its subject matter. The artistic director in question is Geoffrey Tennant (the extraordinary Paul Gross, best known here for Due South), and as he works at unclogging the facilities, he debates with a company member whether it really is necessary to pay the phone bill, because after all, in ancient Greece, theaters managed just fine without phones.
Once upon a time, Geoffrey was the star of New Burbage. He lit up the stage as Hamlet in Oliver’s legendary production. But then he had a nervous breakdown on stage, and this is where he is today. Geoffrey, Oliver and Ellen (who played Ophelia to Geoffrey’s Hamlet) haven’t spoken in years.
By the end of episode 1, Oliver will have left New Burbage – in a very permanent manner – and shortly thereafter, one of the old-time board members hits on the fanciful notion of appointing Geoffrey as “interim artistic director” while the board searches for a replacement. To take over Oliver’s Hamlet on short notice, the Festival finds the only director who’s available: Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), an old rival of Geoffrey’s and an outlandish rebel who hates the theater. Darren introduces himself to the cast of Hamlet by holding out the text with two fingers and announcing: “This play is dead!” – much to the consternation of Cyril (Graham Harley) and Frank (Michael Polley), two long-time supporting players whose exchanges provides a running commentary on, well, everything. (They also sing the opening and closing songs.)
What happens? Well, it’s Hamlet. There’s a doomed romantic triangle, a death, a ghost, madness, betrayals, plots, schemes, young lovers in peril, a duel and the skull of an old acquaintance whose toothy grin scoffs at all this mortal fuss. And that’s just off-stage.
Always in the background is the long-suffering stage manager, Maria (Catherine Fitch), whose lot in life is to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous egos. Every organization has people like Maria: the practical sort who knows how things work and reliably gets the essential tasks done. Never appreciated, rarely thanked, Maria is the engine that keeps New Burbage running. Midway through the season, she gets drunk at a party and tells everyone off. It’s a thrilling moment.
| Call me superstitious or cowardly or weak, |
But I’ll never play a character
Whose name one dare not speak.
The show’s second season revolves around a production of Macbeth. Legend has it that the play is cursed, which is why generations of theater people avoid uttering its name while inside a theater, preferring euphemisms like “Mackers” or “the Scottish play”. Because the plot builds on elements from the end of season 1, the following discussion contains what might be considered spoilers. If you haven’t seen S&A, but already know you’re interested, I recommend skipping down to the mastering, video and audio sections. You have my word that seasons 2 and 3 are just as funny (though some of the humor gets very dark).
It’s the final performance of Hamlet and the end of the season. Goodbyes are said, and plans begin for the next season.
Richard is still dealing with the fallout from the loss of the Lenstrex corporate sponsorship. The crisis deepens when another long-time corporate sponsor informs him that they’ve decided to halve their support for the coming year. With his back against the wall, Richard turns to the charitable resource of last resort: the Canadian government. The scene in which Richard literally begs the Minister of Culture for money, only to be told that it’s wasted on the arts when it could be used to save lives, is one of S&A’s classic moments. (One director of a local theater company told me that he felt like he was seeing his own life replayed on screen.) But thanks to a clever maneuver dreamed up by Anna, Richard manages to leave the Minister’s office with a $2.2 million lifeline. The catch is that it’s a loan, and it has to be repaid within 60 days after the close of the next season – so ticket sales had better pick up.
Richard’s story in season 2 involves his effort to “rebrand” the New Burbage Theatre Festival to appeal to a younger audience. To this end, he engages the PR firm of Frog Hammer and its larger-than-life head, Sanjay Ramey. The inside joke about Sanjay is that he’s played by one of Canada’s leading Shakespearean actors, Colm Feore (well-known here for any number of film and TV roles, from the husband of President Taylor on 24, to the evil force in Steven King’s Storm of the Century – “Give me what I want and I’ll go away” – to the doctor who switched Travolta’s and Cage’s faces in Face/Off). Sanjay’s methods for attracting the youth market are so shockingly unorthodox that Richard is soon fielding criticism from all sides.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey is consumed with staging Macbeth, a play he absolutely, positively does not want to direct. But Macbeth was Oliver’s obsession, and Oliver left boxes of notes and sketches for his dream production – if only he could get the great star Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies) for the lead. When Breedlove suddenly announces he’s available, Richard insists that Geoffrey make room in the season.
In season 1, Geoffrey had to cope with a star’s lack of stage experience, but in season 2 he has the opposite problem. Breedlove’s many years of acclaim on the stage, plus his previous three outings as Macbeth (all successful, as he repeatedly reminds people), make him impossible to direct. From the very first reading, Breedlove and Geoffrey battle each other for control of the production. Their conflict escalates to such intensity that . . . well, let’s just say that rarely has there been such an opening night. Adding to Geoffrey’s challenges is the return of an old friend with additional “notes” on how the play should be done.
New Burbage also has Romeo and Juliet on its schedule this season, but when its director is suddenly incapacitated, the only replacement available is the least appropriate imaginable: Darren Nichols. Darren returns refreshed from a season in Germany, spouting theoretical rubbish about “signifiers” (it’s even funnier if you know the writers whose works he mangles) and directing the actors to play one of the world’s greatest love stories without emotion. Darren also has them encased in elaborate costumes that limit their movements. The cast get so desperate that the leads, Sarah (Joanne Kelly) and Patrick (David Alpay), seek covert direction from Geoffrey, who once played Romeo opposite Ellen’s Juliet. And the battle between Geoffrey and Darren moves to a new front. (So does the relationship between Sarah and Patrick.)
Ellen’s messy life takes a new turn when she becomes the subject of a tax audit (apparently not an uncommon occurrence among actors, many of whom aren’t good with paperwork). Ellen’s scenes with the auditor give her opportunities to plumb new depths of comic neediness and insecurity.
In the administrative office, Anna struggles under the limits imposed by Richard’s budget cuts. To save money on staff, Richard revives the intern program, which gives students interested in theater a chance to work at New Burbage for no salary and experience life in a real repertory company. Anna protests that unskilled interns will increase her workload, not lighten it, and she’s quickly proved right, as a horde of ignorant trainees descend on the festival. Most of them are bored, stoned or lazy. Even the eager one, Emily (Grace Lynn Kung), is a liability. Whenever she makes a mistake, she bursts into tears.
The only bright prospect in Anna’s life is the presence of Lionel Train (Jonathan Crombie), the writer commissioned to write a new Canadian play for the season. He asks Anna to dinner, but what are his intentions? Watch and learn.
S&A routinely reminds us that all the world’s a stage. At one point, Richard goes to the home of a wealthy board member, panicked and begging for help. Unbeknownst to Richard, a masquerade ball is in progress. The board member hears Richard’s plight, then tells him: Sure, I could help you, because every wealthy mover and shaker in town is here at the party, and they could write the checks tonight. But I won’t ask them, because you’ve done a lousy job, and at the next board meeting, I’m going to cut your head off.
At that moment, the board member is dressed as the ruthless French ruler Cardinal Richelieu. And he’s very deeply into his character.
| When life takes its toll, |
When fate treats you bad,
You used to be king
And now you’ve been had;
Alone with your fool,
You think you’ll go mad,
It’s nice to take a walk in the rain.
Season 3 revolves around a troubled production of King Lear – troubled because of Geoffrey’s fateful choice to cast the lead with an aged actor, Charles Kingman, whom everyone else considers over the hill. (Kingman is played by William Hutt, whose own Lear is the stuff of theatrical legend.) As the season progresses, Kingman’s personal issues threaten to swamp the play. He’s impatient, irascible, insulting to other cast members – and those are the easy items.
As season 3 opens, both Geoffrey and Richard are grappling with something to which they’re unaccustomed: success. Fresh off Richard’s “rebranding”, the Festival repays the government loan and is finally in the black. Donors are opening their checkbooks, and Geoffrey and Richard spend their days addressing groups, giving press interviews and taking meetings with a wide array of industry people.
Geoffrey is in hell. He’s where Oliver was when the series started.
Adding to the pressure, Ellen’s best friend, Barbara (Janet Bailey), a successful TV actress, returns to New Burbage to play Goneril in Lear, and Ellen, whose up-and-down relationship with Geoffrey is currently up, invites her to stay with them. Barbara is an opinionated harpy, always probing for a sore spot she can irritate. In short order, Geoffrey moves out and seeks therapy from an unusual source. When he does, an old friend is sitting at his side.
For Richard, success leaves a feeling of emptiness, which he tries to fill by taking a greater interest in the Festival’s artistic side. He asks Geoffrey whether he can oversee the season’s new musical, East Hastings, a ludicrous concoction about a drug-addicted prostitute finding salvation through song. Geoffrey, who hates musicals, says yes, but unfortunately for Richard, the musical is being directed by Darren Nichols, who may be the least musical person on the planet. Fireworks ensue, but Richard loves the excitement. Soon he’s in full-blown mid-life crisis, with a wardrobe and a private life to match.
East Hastings also becomes a bone of contention in the lower ranks. The Shakespeare actors treat the musical cast as lightweights, while the musical performers find their drama counterparts pretentious snobs. (There’s truth on both sides.) The conflict gets personal in the house shared by Sophie (Sarah Polley), who’s playing Cordelia in Lear; her friend Paul (Aaron Abrams), who’s playing Edgar; and Megan (Melanie Merkosky), the limber singer/dancer playing the golden-throated hooker. Matters take a serious turn when Paul falls for Megan, much to Sophie’s horror. In S&A, the juiciest drama is always backstage.
Anna’s story in season 3 focuses on a Bolivian folk group, Los Perdidos, which came to New Burbage for the annual World Music Festival. Just as the group was scheduled to return home, news reports of a violent coup in Bolivia scare Anna into believing that the musicians risk life and limb by returning to native soil, and she springs into action.
Lear is often considered the most pessimistic of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and because each season of S&A takes it cue from the main play being staged, season 3 often treads into dark territory. Knowing that this would be their final season, the writers sought to bring a sense of closure to the storyline of each major character. It’s a decidedly mixed set of outcomes. Shakespeare ended his comedies with marriage and his tragedies with death, but S&A ends with both. To the end, though, it retains its mordant wit. Taking his leave of the company, one character issues the following valedictory: “Best of luck with what’s left of your lives!”
Rarely do I encounter mastering issues that require separate mention, but it happens. The S&A Blu-rays are Java-encoded but loaded reasonably quickly on my Panasonic BD-50. However, the first disc of season 1 contained introductory promotional trailers, and the disc stopped after the trailers played. To get to the disc’s menu, I had to hit the chapter forward button during each trailer, after which the menu would load.
Even after loading, though, I wasn’t guaranteed a trouble-free playing experience. On the BD-50, an episode might stop playing unexpectedly. I ultimately had to shift these review discs to my older BD-10 (a profile 1.1 machine), which seemed to load and play these discs with less trouble.
But that wasn’t all. I couldn’t get elapsed time display on any of the six discs during any episode or extra. This is not the first time I have encountered such a problem, and it turns out to be peculiar to Panasonic Blu-ray players (it affected both the BD-50 and the BD-10). However, those players are highly compliant with the Blu-ray standard (and yes, the firmware is up to date). If you are using a Panasonic player and encounter these issues, it’s not you.
I’ve been in touch with Acorn Media (who are a pleasure to deal with, BTW), and they have confirmed that these problems do not appear on any of their in-house test machines, which do not include Panasonic players. So these notations are included for the Panasonic owners out there. With any luck, not all models will exhibit these issues.
Finally, I encountered an oddity in the first episode of season 3. On the first disc I received from Acorn, the episode froze about three quarters of the way through (in a scene where Richard is considering buying a used car) and wouldn’t play any further. Acorn obligingly sent me a replacement disc, which played that entire scene without incident, but then began to “stutter” on a later scene (a date of Richard’s that doesn’t go according to plan), after which the disc settled down and played to the end of the episode. The remaining episodes on the disc played normally. Update: This issue on season 3, disc 1 was subsequently determined to be the result of a replication error and was fixed by Acorn prior to street date. Well done!
Let’s start with the disclosure printed on the Blu-ray cases and slipcover. Seasons 2 and 3 are 1080p, but season 1 has been “upconverted to 1080p”. Upon further inquiry, Acorn Media provided me with the following information:
Like many TV productions in Canada and the U.K., S&A was shot on 16mm. Like most small publishers, Acorn has neither the materials nor the resources to prepare its own masters. Instead, it is sent masters by the original producers. In the case of S&A, they were sent HD CAM 1080P/23.98 masters of all three seasons. For seasons 2 and 3, these appear to have been derived from high-definition scans of the 16mm film source. For season 1, however, no high-definition scan appears to have been made. Rather than create a new transfer for Blu-ray, the producers apparently opted to upconvert an existing standard-definition scan. The process was performed at Deluxe in Toronto, using means and methods of which Acorn was not advised.
So how do the results look? Since I have the DVDs, I was able to compare the season 1 Blu-ray to the DVD image upconverted by a Blu-ray player. The image on the Blu-ray is superior, but not by much. As everyone knows, upconversion cannot add image detail; it can only simulate it. Whatever process was used by Deluxe Toronto offers a superior simulation to that provided by either of my Blu-ray players. Objects are slightly better defined, colors slightly more saturated, and the image has a slightly greater sense of depth. However, we’re talking minor degrees of difference. Substantial video noise is still evident, especially in long shots where a genuine increase in resolution would probably have reduced or eliminated it; upconversion smooths it at best and accentuates it at worst.
The situation improves dramatically with seasons 2 and 3 (which only goes to show how much better the image for season 1 could have been, if the show’s producers had been willing to spring for a new hi-def scan). A 16mm image can yield excellent detail, vivid colors and excellent blacks, and the image for the second two seasons of S&A are a good example. Costumes, sets, the occasional outdoor location and even the detail of actors’ expressions are rendered more vividly with a hi-def transfer, and the result only intensifies the impact of each scene.
Still, the transfer for seasons 2 and 3 is not without its flaws. It looks much more like video than film, and it’s clearly been heavily processed in post-production. On the plus side, the processing does not appear to be the kind that reduces detail. On the negative side, there is noticeable video noise throughout the transfer, and in some shots it’s quite pronounced. This is more prevalent in season 3 than season 2, and it’s most evident in background expanses of a single color. It’s the kind of phenomenon that, at first glance, might be mistaken for film grain, but on closer inspection has none of the structure of film grain. While we can be pleased that the presence of such noise indicates noise-reduction software hasn’t been overzealously applied, it’s unfortunate that the noise was introduced in the first place. More effort to preserve the look of the original photography would have been preferable.
On balance, this is the best that S&A has ever looked on home video, and it’s unlikely that we’ll see a better version anytime in the foreseeable future. Subject to the mastering issues identified above, a first-time buyer will probably want to go with the Blu-ray. For someone who already owns the DVDs, the case is much less compelling.
The first two seasons of S&A were released in stereo, and those tracks are presented here in DTS lossless. The principal elements are dialogue and the jaunty score by Ron Sures, which uses recurrent motifs to cue such things as moments of inspiration – or sheer panic. The tracks are well-represented on the Blu-ray, but the improvements over the DVD presentations are minor. The dialogue is a touch clearer, and the musical elements have somewhat greater presence
The third season is offered in a choice of stereo and 5.1 surround, as it was on DVD. Again, the difference on Blu-ray is that both tracks are now presented in DTS lossless. The chief beneficiary of the 5.1 format is the dialogue, which is even clearer when it’s separated into a discrete center channel. The instruments, especially Frank’s piano (which is a really played by song composer Greg Morrison), have a somewhat more defined and robust presence. Otherwise, there’s no significant use of the surround channels except to further enhance the stereo separation.
With the exception of cast and crew filmographies, which IMDb now renders superfluous, all of the special features from the DVD releases appear to have been included. Although I don’t have the “bonus” disc included with the “Complete Collection” DVD release, published descriptions of its contents indicate that they can be found among the season 3 extras, although they appear to have been reorganized.
I was initially unable to locate a set of extended scenes from the season 3 production of King Lear, which were included as a separate extra with the DVD release. These have been relocated to the Deleted and Extended Scenes on season 3, disc 2 of the Blu-ray set.
Exclusive to this Blu-ray release are commentaries, one per season.
Season 1, Disc 1:
Commentary on Episode 1 with Creators/Writers/Actors Bob Martin, Mark McKinney and Susan Coyne. The three creators and writers reminisce about the show’s origins, which date back to 1998. Many of their observations will not be news to long-time S&A afficionados, but the commentary is a good introduction for new fans. Probably the most significant new comment is Coyne’s confirmation that they only expected the show to last one season, and that subsequent comments about their having planned a “trilogy” are historical revisionism. (I’ve always suspected this, based on the way that season 1 knits up the storylines so neatly.)
Season 1, Disc 2:
Trailer (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (4:25). A beautifully edited overview of first season (and, indeed, the series).
Bloopers (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (6:36). A typical collection of mishaps and blown lines, but some of the reactions are hilarious, especially Paul Gross’s. In scenes with Mark McKinney, you can tell that he is also a writer and producer. When mistakes happen, he can’t help but try to fix them.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (10:03). Eight scenes are included, and some of them are quite interesting. Of particular note is a scene from an outdoor rehearsal of Hamlet that is referred to but never seen in episode 5; it was clearly cut to intensify the impact of events later in the episode, but it’s a great scene.
Production Notes. As notes go, these are reasonably informative, with comments from the three creators as well as other producers and director Wellington.
Credits. The basics.
Lyrics to “Cheer Up Hamlet” & “Call the Understudy”. These are the two songs that open and close each episode (except for episode 6, which closes with instrumental music).
Season 2, Disc 1:
Cast Interview (Martha Burns & Stephen Ouimette) (SD; 4:3) (14:11). The actors who play Ellen and Oliver talk about their characters, their experiences in the theater and the “Mackers” curse.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (14:20). Thirteen scenes are included. Many of the extended scenes are quite entertaining, but one can understand the need to trim them for pacing. The best deleted scenes relate to Darren’s production of Romeo and Juliet, and the very best involves Maria interrupting a radical (and fictitious) acting drill identified as “the Belkovsky exercise”.
Trailer (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (3:59). The style of the season 2 trailer reflects both the success of season 1 and the keen anticipation with which season 2 was awaited.
Production Notes. There’s a great deal more puffery in these production notes than in season 1's, and it starts with the conceit that the series was always planned as a trilogy – a myth exploded by Coyne in her season 1 commentary.
Season 2, Disc 2:
Cast Interview (Michael Polley & Graham Hurley) (SD; 4:3) (7:55). The duo who are a constant delight as Cyril and Frank demonstrate that their comic chemistry works just as well when they’re themselves as when they’re in character. And yet they’d never met before auditioning for S&A. Here they discuss their roles and disagree at length over the “Mackers” curse (Hurley believes in it; Polley thinks it’s rubbish).
Commentary on Episode 6 with Actors Michael Polley and Graham Hurley. As is often the case with commentators who played supporting parts, Polley and Hurley aren’t all that familiar with the parts of the episode in which they don’t appear. As a result, they often go quiet for stretches of the commentary. But when they do talk, it’s well worth hearing. The best parts are when they do exactly what Cyril and Frank do: reminisce about their own experiences in the theater, telling tales that are only tangentially related to the plot of S&A.
Bloopers (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (9:54). More entertaining gaffes and mishaps. Mark McKinney does a great Liverpool accent.
Photo Gallery (SD; 1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (1:35). A slide show of production photos set to music.
Credits. Again, the basics.
Lyrics to “Call the Understudy” and “Mackers”. “Mackers” is the opening song for each episode in season 2. “Call the Understudy” closes each episode, as it did in season 1. The version that plays in episode 6 is unique to that episode.
Season 3, Disc 2:
Commentary on Episode 6 with Actors Paul Gross and Martha Burns and Director Peter Wellington. It’s unfortunate that Wellington wasn’t given the opportunity to record a commentary on his own, because one senses that he would have much to say about his directorial choices and the challenges of coordinating S&A’s large and diverse cast. He does point out a moment where a particularly intense scene was interrupted by the distant ringing of a telephone, leading to a spontaneous response that made the final cut. In general, though, Wellington defers to Gross and Burns (who played Geoffrey and Ellen). They speak enthusiastically about many of their fellow actors, especially William Hutt, whose performance as Charles Kingman was one of his last before his death in 2007.
Interviews (SD; 4:3). The questions appear on title cards, and many of the same questions are posed to different actors. The first two interviews appeared on the original DVD set; the last three appeared on the complete collection bonus disc.
Paul Gross (17:02). Topics include playing Hamlet; Shakespeare’s continuing appeal; the balance between art and commerce; the nature of S&A’s comedy; and the challenges of translating Shakespeare’s dramatic style to film or TV.
Susan Coyne (9:26). Topics include popularizing Shakespeare; how S&A got started; the reaction of the Stratford Festival (the model for New Burbage) to S&A; the magic of theater; why Shakespeare is taught badly; and the “Canadian-ness” of S&A.
Martha Burns (8:50). Topics include the show’s appeal to both general audiences and critics; the advantages of performing Shakespeare on TV; and the value of classical training for an actor.
Stephen Ouimette (9:33). Most of the interview focuses on Shakespeare as a writer, and why his work hasn’t aged.
Graham Hurley (4:05). Interesting observations on the realism (and lack thereof) in S&A, and the use and accuracy of certain stereotypical characters (such as Hurley’s character, Frank).
On the Set (SD; 4:3). This entire section appeared on the complete collection bonus disc, and the best that can be said of it is that it demonstrates the tedium of making movies. It consists of fly-on-the-wall documentary footage taken during the shooting of a rehearsal sequence in episode 5. The sound is poor, and it’s often impossible to tell what’s happening, but the focus is on details such as lenses, camera placement, blocking and timing. The segments are titled according to the subject most seen in the footage.
William Hutt (2:35).
Cast and Crew (5:32).
Director, Parts I-III (27:27).
Trailer (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (4:35). “It’s curtains for the comedy about drama.”
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (19:45). Seventeen scenes are included. The funniest are those involving the musical, East Hastings, which is so absurd that even the actors can’t keep straight faces. The most significant is a scene between Geoffrey and Oliver that would have been part of episode 6 (which had to be substantially cut for time considerations, according to Wellington’s commentary). After the seventeen scenes, there's a separate section that includes additional excerpts of the King Lear production.
Bloopers (SD; 1.78:1; non-enhanced) (8:52). If nothing else, this particular set of mistakes and verbal pratfalls reflects just how comfortable the cast had become with one another over the course of three seasons.
Behind the Scenes Featurette (SD; 4:3) (8:58). This short featurette first appeared on the complete collection bonus disc. It relies heavily on interview footage featured elsewhere and is therefore not a significant addition.
Production Notes. Although there’s an overly strong note of self-congratulation in this set of notes, it’s certainly been earned. Coyne offers a few worthwhile observations about the writing process.
Song Lyrics. “A Walk in the Rain” opens every episode of season 3. “I Played the Part” is the song that concludes the final episode of the series. Also included are songs from the musical produced by the festival during season 3: “East Hastings”, “Two Thousand Dollars”, “Tryin’ To Be Heard”; and song credits.
Photo Gallery (SD; 1.78:1; enhanced for 16:9) (2:00). A slide show of production photos set to music.
Credits. Again, the basics.
Paul Gross, who plays Geoffrey, observes in one of the interviews, that S&A is really a “workplace” comedy that could be set, with appropriate changes, in almost any place of employment. The advantage of setting it in the theater is that the personalities (and egos) are generally bigger and more demonstrative. But Gross is onto something. For every harried employee, in the arts or any other job, there comes a time when work is just too overwhelming, and one must seek refuge elsewhere. Such are the sentiments expressed in the irreverent anthem that closes almost every episode of S&A:
| Call the understudy, |
I can’t go on tonight.
I’m drinking with my buddy;
I’m getting good and tight
Before they raise the curtain, I’ll be higher than a kite!
So call the understudy,
I can’t go on tonight.
Tell the cast and crew to break a leg (break a leg!)
Roll me out another bloody keg (bloody keg!)
I need to ease the pain that life can bring (life can bring!)
And liquor is what will hit the spot –
The play is not the thing!
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD10 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub