THE DVD SHELF: "Slings & Arrows," Branagh's "Hamlet," Olivier's "Othello" and Muppets

News   THE DVD SHELF: "Slings & Arrows," Branagh's "Hamlet," Olivier's "Othello" and Muppets
 
This month's column discusses "Slings & Arrows," the irrepressible backstage Canadian TV series; a four-film set of Shakespeare, highlighted by Branagh's "Hamlet" and Olivier's "Othello"; and a season-full of "The Muppet Show," featuring numerous Broadway guests.
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I cannot in good conscience recommend, dear reader, that you purchase Slings & Arrows; Season Three [Acorn Media]. You must go out and get all three seasons, and the sooner the better. Three seasons might sound daunting, in terms of time commitment, but it's not in the present instance. This Canadian series, initially telecast hereabouts on the Sundance Channel, consists of only six episodes a season; without commercials, they come to about 48 minutes per. Thus, each season runs under five hours in total. Five delicious hours, that is. After watching the first two episodes of Season One, you will undoubtedly be clearing your schedule for the next several nights. Each season, preserved on two DVDs, is correspondingly priced; the whole shebang lists for about $90, less than a rear mezzanine ticket at some Broadway houses. And you get to — and will want to — see it again and again, with infinitely more legroom in your living room.

"Slings & Arrows" takes place at the prestigious New Burbage Theatre Festival in Canada. (The authors of the series have clearly done hard time, not in prison but at the Stratford Festival. Any similarities are merely coincidental, of course.) Caught in the slings and arrows of most outrageous fortune is, primarily, Geoffrey Tennant. A great Hamlet who went mad onstage and off to an asylum, he returns to New Burbage as interim artistic director after the reigning genius is struck down by a truck full of pigs. (Don't ask.) Said resident genius is, or was, named Oliver Welles — a combination of Orson and Sir Larry? — and he remains on hand for all three seasons, like an acerbic edition of Hamlet's ghostly father (moonlighting as Banquo's ghost). Aiding and abetting — and simultaneously hindering and sabotaging — the proceedings is Richard Smith-Jones, the managing producer of the Festival. The central quintet is completed by Ellen Fanshaw, Geoffrey's former Ophelia and now the no-longer-so-young leading lady of the Festival; and Darren Nichols, a visionary director in the worst sense of the word who comes back each season to stir up pretensions.

New Burbage, in theory, concentrates on the classics: "Hamlet" in the first season, followed by "Macbeth" and "King Lear." Business — that other component of show business — sneaks in and, by the end of the third year, pushes "Lear" off the mainstage into the 199-seater to make room for a megamusical about a lovable drug addict. Dare I say it: a heroin heroine? Any resemblance to the RSC, which favored their subscribers with the twin horrors Jean Seberg and Carrie, is certainly unintended.

The cast of Canadian actors is superb, catching you up in their characters over the course of the 18 episodes without a hitch. (These are actors playing actors playing different roles in different episodes; given that New Burbage is a rep house, some of the actors-within-the-series play multiple roles in the same episode.) Paul Gross leads the troupe as Geoffrey, ably supported by Stephen Ouimette (Oliver), Martha Burns (Ellen), Mark McKinney (co-author of the series, as Richard) and Don McKellar as the enfant terrible — or should we say director terrible? Auxiliary players who merit mention for their consistently strong support include Susan Coyne, as the assistant managing director; Oliver Dennis, as a character man/star understudy who manages to keep the curtain up; and Catharine Fitch, as the hardest working stage manager in the north. (New Burbage mounts several plays simultaneously in rep, and they have one stage manager teching and running them all???) Graham Harley and Michael Polley, as two veteran spear carriers, provide running ballast and catty asides (very much like the two men in the box at "The Muppet Show"). They also commandeer the delicious opening credit sequences. Numerous guest stars come along, usually for a season's-worth of episodes. These include Luke Kirby, Rachel McAdams, Colm Feore and a wickedly funny one-scene stint by Kenneth Welsh (auditioning for a role he doesn't get). Especially notable in the third season is esteemed stage star William Hutt, who died of leukemia in June, playing a dying actor who is determined to get through a performance of Lear. Which makes for some chilling, and devastatingly funny, viewing.

This series, in a roundabout way, sheds some light on the mystery of The Drowsy Chaperone — the mystery being, where did all those unknown-to-Broadway authors spring from? Bob Martin, our favorite Man in the Chair, serves as creative producer (whatever that may mean) of "Slings and Arrows," and one of the three writers. He also played a small role in the first season, with an especially effective scene as a business executive taking an acting class. Martin's co-librettist on Drowsy is Don McKellar, who co-stars as that ghastly fool of a director, Darren Nichols. As for those Drowsy songwriters Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, they provide the delectable character-men-in-the-barroom songs under the opening and closing credits.

"Slings & Arrows" is your typical multicharacter TV-drama, yes; but it is a backstage drama as well, with true-to-life characters stumbling through their offstage lives as they live for art. The show is engrossing and gripping, yes, but with a macabre sense of fun and enough romance — all those young actors, you know — to keep things spicy. The action and the interest never let up, through all 18 episodes. Apparently, the third season is the end of it; the final episode, indeed, neatly ties up all loose ends. However, the show's many vehement fans are keeping their hopes high and fingers crossed. I suspect you will, too, if once you start watching.

Speaking of Shakespeare, here comes an intriguing and perhaps indispensable set, under the title Warner Home Video Shakespeare Collection. Four films, each notable in their own right, and — imagine this! — all making their first-ever appearance on DVD.

The highlight, at least in terms of popular appeal, is Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of "Hamlet." This was an all-stops-out production, using the full text (and clocking four hours and two minutes). Director Branagh, who plays that melancholy Dane, surrounds himself with a cast that might raise a few eyebrows; where else will you find Billy Crystal and Charlton Heston cheek by jowl? Jack Lemmon and Robin Williams, too, along with Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Derek Jacobi. If you want the complete "Hamlet," full text and full screen, here it is.

Branagh's "Hamlet" was conceived for the screen. Laurence Olivier's 1965 "Othello" began as a legendary stage production at the National Theatre in London (now the Royal National Theatre), where it was directed by John Dexter. (The film features Dexter's production and actors; it is directed by Stuart Burge.) Olivier's performance is an absolute marvel; the original advertising campaign called it "the greatest Othello ever by the greatest actor of our time." Hyperbole, perhaps, but this is some performance. (And yes, folks, Sir Larry plays it in black-face. How else?)

After watching this performance, you might want to switch to the original trailer that is included with the bonus features. Here comes Sir Larry, looking like a middle-aged banker, chatting with us about how impossible it was to arrange schedules to allow an international tour of the National's "Othello," which is why they decided to film it. But look at the man, soft and gentle and pleasant; then switch back to his Othello, beneath the greasepaint mask. It's a shame to spoil the surprise of who that Desdemona is, but the titles give it away long before her first entrance. This exceptional dramatic actress, holding her own with Olivier and a stageful of top British dramatic actors, is Maggie Smith, 40-odd years ago. She was already a star comedienne at the time, but watch as she lifts her brow, and lo — not a single laugh! Spellbinding, as is the whole affair.

The other two films are what you might call oldies, from the days of the Hollywood studio system. From 1936, comes George Cukor's "Romeo and Juliet," with Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles. The cast is filled out with John Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith and those other codgers. The handling might seem a little old fashioned, but no matter. (The quote on the slipcase calls it "best of the pre-Olivier Shakespeare films.")

Far more remarkable is Max Reinhardt's 1935 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Reinhardt had staged a production of the play at the Hollywood Bowl; Jack Warner was so overwhelmed that he invited the director into the studio, giving him free reign. The results are amazing, that's for sure; this is unlike any "Midsummer Night's Dream" you're likely to see, and among the most imaginative films ever to come out of Hollywood. Take a look at Mickey Rooney's Puck, for starters; unworldly and unforgettable. James Cagney, too, stands out as a droll and impressive Bottom. He is joined by Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Olivia de Havilland, Victor Jory, Frank McHugh and more. This was back in the days of black & white and non-stereophonic sound, but the work in both departments is altogether remarkable. Listen to that fascinating Mendelssohn score, adapted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. No, they don't — and can't — make 'em like this anymore. That's the Warner Home Video Shakespeare Collection. Each film — the two-DVD "Hamlet" and the others on single-discs — is available separately, too.

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All the world being a stage, it is only natural to segue to Jim Henson and The Muppet Show: The Complete Second Season [Buena Vista]. M-G-M and the Bros. Warner had stars galore, sure, but Henson does them better; everybody seems to have wanted to go and play second banana to the frog and the pig. The second season lineup includes Julie Andrews, Zero Mostel, Elton John, Peter Sellers, Milton Berle, Nancy Walker, Judy Collins, Bernadette Peters, Rudolf Nureyev, Madeline Kahn, Steve Martin, George Burns — and, well, a dozen more. And this is just the lineup from the 1977-1978 season.

The humor is all over the place; some items land remarkably well, while others show their age. (This was topical TV, after all.) The magic of the Muppets series, viewed long after the fact, is that it presents the guests on holiday; we are seeing their public personas, of course, but overall their guards are down. How can they not be? They are talking to, singing with and acting against lovable, shaggy, ridiculous puppets. All of these actors seem larger than life — how can they not be? — and having a jolly old time, without their agents or managers or public relations experts standing in the corner rewriting the script. And they were presumably working for nothing, comparatively speaking. These Muppets episodes, spread across a four-DVD set, are full of glimpses at numerous intriguing stars — now either departed or 30 years older — and full of pure joy.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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