“Rarer Monsters” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 7/11/2005)
In which Geoffrey loses it…
Slings And Arrows is great at piling on. It might start with a situation or two each season, but by the time it reaches the season’s midpoint, it’s buzzing with activity. This episode alone introduces the seemingly disastrous campaign Frog Hammer dreams up for the festival, the various ways putting on Macbeth seems to have cursed the festival, the people in Romeo And Juliet (now directed by Darren!), Ellen’s audit, and all of the ways that Henry Breedlove seems to be actively undermining Geoffrey’s authority. That’s a lot to cram into one 45-minute episode, to say nothing of the way the show keeps everything else spinning along, but it never feels strained or effortful. Season two of Slings is intent on expanding the world of the festival, while still keeping the core of the show intact, and this episode is the first big test of that idea.
I’ve talked a lot about the way the show uses Oliver to externalize certain conflicts that would be difficult to portray otherwise, such as Geoffrey’s struggles against his own mental illness or his creative process. What I haven’t really touched on is that the show also uses Oliver to put Geoffrey and Ellen’s otherwise happy coupling into a dangerous spot. The theme of this season—as borne out by the play that’s being produced—is just what the line is between a man capable of emotions like love and a man swallowed alive by what he must do. Put another way: It’s a season about the thin line between man and madman, and when Ellen walks into that empty theatre and sees Geoffrey ranting at no one up on stage, it’s a terrifying moment. The show treats his talks with Oliver as such a matter of fact thing that it’s easy to forget that nobody else can see Oliver, even when they’re clearly turned off by his shouting at nothing. To see him ranting at thin air is another thing entirely.
One of the things about the first season that’s always rubbed me the wrong way is the fact that Ellen and Geoffrey’s relationship ended because she slept with Oliver. It’s not that Oliver’s ostensibly gay or that it’s a love triangle that never really comes up again. It’s that it just feels too easy, particularly when you consider the excellent bundle of terrifying stuff that lays at the center of each of these characters. Yet this season, as Geoffrey continues to abandon Ellen at night to go to the theatre and rant to Oliver, the whole thing becomes that much clearer. Oliver’s not just a convenient obstacle to place between the two; he’s an externalization of the fact that both of them love the theatre more than each other at moments. These are people drawn to their work and to the fake worlds they live in up on stage. Is it any wonder that they’d be pushed away from each other in that process? Oliver isn’t just the allure of madness or the way that the creative process is easy to lose oneself in. He’s also the living embodiment of this thing that so dominates both Geoffrey and Ellen’s lives, even if only Geoffrey can see him.
While all of this is going on, Richard’s confronting the central problem every theatre company in the world is facing right now: The traditional backers of the arts are dying off, and how on Earth are you going to get their grandkids to buy season tickets to a bunch of Shakespeare plays? Sanjay’s solution is to put up a bunch of blatantly confrontational billboards that throw in the faces of everybody who sees them the fact that, well, the sorts of people who underwrite the New Burbage Festival aren’t long for this world. The second wave of this is going to involve blowing up the worst reviews the festival has ever received and putting those on billboards. Richard, at first, is furious about all of this, and he’s made even more so by a stream of calls coming into the office, ranting about how the first wave of ads is in poor taste. He goes to talk to Sanjay and is, of course, talked back down, often with Sanjay’s adeptness at dropping a Richard Nixon quote. (I always think he’s making these up, but he’s literally quoting Nixon every time he says, “Richard Nixon said that!” which makes the whole gag even more hilarious.)
Now, Sanjay’s a broad, broad character, and Richard’s a pathetic drip, and the Frog Hammer stuff often seems to be there just to make sure some bigger comedy gets into the middle of everything else. So I can see why it sticks out like a sore thumb for some! But Frog Hammer and Sanjay get by simply because they’re so damned funny, particularly once Richard’s thrown into the middle of everything else, and because they get down to the heart of this season, that line between work and life, between art and everything else. Sanjay’s approach might end up working—and I won’t spoil if it does—but is it worth it to intrude on something even Richard holds at least somewhat sacred? Sanjay doesn’t really care about the theatre enough to save it. He just cares about the myth of Frog Hammer. That makes him a great comic character, but it also makes him of a piece with most of the other characters on the show.
Honestly, most of the people on the show are largely ill-equipped to handle life off the stage or outside of their own legends. Ellen’s perhaps a bit too mystified by being audited (though Frank and Cyril’s tax advice to her is priceless), while Sarah, one of our new characters, who’s playing Juliet, doesn’t get the several hints that her new costar is gay. (He’s “never played Romeo,” if you know what I mean.) Now, granted, both of these situations are fairly complex ones that just about anybody could struggle with, but that the series keeps throwing its female characters into these situations—outside of marvelous, glorious Anna—can feel a little… odd, is all I’m saying. It also creates a kind of whiplash between when Ellen’s freaking out over her audit and when she’s telling Geoffrey that she’s taking Henry’s side because they’re on the same team or telling Geoffrey that she just doesn’t think she can handle his ghosts—both figurative and literal. These are huge, heartbreaking moments, and it’s a wonder that the show is able to land them, because there’s so much going on.
But the busyness is half the fun of episodes three and four of any given season of this show, which tend to fill everything up so much with incident that viewers don’t realize just how much is crowding the screen. What makes this season’s plot work is the way it tosses so much at Geoffrey Tennant, a man who’s not built to deal with that much (or very much at all, really). Everybody’s doing Macbeth as a tribute to Oliver Welles, but now that Geoffrey’s in the thick of it, he’s realizing that he has his own ideas for how the show might work, and they’re actually not all that bad. The problem is that everybody’s rebelling against him. They want the funhouse Macbeth, the giddily gruesome version we saw the kids run through last week. They don’t want to confront the fact that Macbeth the madman is also Macbeth the man. And, okay, Henry doesn’t want to be naked up there on stage.
Yet Brian’s right. It’s interesting to contemplate a Macbeth who’s just a man, not a king or general or murderer. Ellen washing the blood from Henry’s body could be a powerful moment if done correctly, but Geoffrey’s outbursts—driven even further by the fact that Oliver does not like Geoffrey departing from his notes—have caused the cast to begin the typical mutiny against the director even earlier than usual. Geoffrey’s mental illness is the primary motivator of the whole series, but the second season does perhaps the best job of making it really scary. And if the last episode showed us how much it scared Geoffrey—and led him to dread Macbeth—this episode shows us how much it scares everybody around him.
Which leads us back to Mackers, to curses, to blood and death and plays that are enormously difficult to stage effectively. When Henry pushes for the more theatrical Macbeth, he’s trying to head to his comfort zone—the very thing that he asks Geoffrey to push him out of—just as he’s trying to take over this production as he’s seemingly taken over so many productions before. But he’s also running away from the notion that what divides Macbeth the man from Macbeth the murderer isn’t as clear and simple as it would seem. When Oliver and Geoffrey spend a better part of the episode discussing the play in terms of archetypes—and I do love when these two get to discussing theatre—they’re really talking about these characters as people who resonate to this day. War is eternal, just as the suffering of war is eternal, but nobody wants to extend that courtesy to the madness of Macbeth. They want to deny him his humanity, because it’s easier that way. It’s safer when it’s just a bloodbath and not something driven by motives we can all recognize. And even if Geoffrey Tennant doesn’t realize why, he has to push back against that, both because he knows the simple reading is rarely the right one and because he must realize, on some level, that rejecting the humanity of Macbeth is also rejecting the humanity of himself.
- When I started this project, I had this grand idea that I was going to reread Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear, the better to inform my reviews with bits from the plays. That largely fell by the wayside because I just didn’t have time, but I do enjoy the sly little nods—and not so sly little nods, like when Oliver wants to sketch Jerry to inform the portrayal of Banquo’s ghost—and I’ve liked your conversations about this topic in comments. More, please.
- Darren Nichols is back. He’s chosen this large room to allow himself maximum maneuverability. Also, he could tell you tales from a puppet festival that would leave you in tears. (I know that I bagged on Darren before, but he seriously made me laugh out loud three or four times in one short scene, so I’ve warmed to him, it would seem.)
- Maria dresses down the intern who stops things promptly at 5, and the intern bursts into tears. I’ve been there, kid! Don’t fret.
- The Romeo And Juliet subplot is one of my less favorite ones in the show. It will be interesting to see how it plays this time around.
- I like the way the series doesn’t do the expected with Henry and Brian. Henry’s mad about it for a bit, but he seems to get over it, and then Brian’s the one who defends Geoffrey’s artistic choices. But Henry insisting he’s buying the next round made me laugh.
- Not enough can be said about how good Paul Gross and Martha Burns are in this episode, but I’m particularly taken with how Gross makes the recurrence of his mental illness—which is often played in a heightened fashion that makes it seem less desperate than it actually would be—into something out of a horror movie. He’s trapped, and he knows it. How can he fight back?
- It strikes me that this season is about two men—Richard and Geoffrey—trying not to get bulldozed by a variety of strong personalities. Of all the shows to be about personalities clashing and good conflict management, I don’t know that I would have predicted this one.
- Three Sanjay quotes: “I wonder where the conference room is today!” “Our research is showing that people feel the same way about attending your theatre as they do about going to the library. Good news for libraries! Terrible news for you!” “You know who thought this up? An idea-blast team composed of a puppeteer, a professional figure skater, and a 9-year-old child!”
- Why are there so many jokes about puppeteers? Besides the obvious, at least.
- Oliver’s plan to have the witches carry their own lanterns sounds pretty badass.
Next week: The plot thickens, as we learn that “Fair Is Foul, And Foul Is Fair.”