Reviewed by on    Theatre in Canada  

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Photo: David Cooper.

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. — The other night Tom Pidgeon, the Ottawa Little Theatre’s longtime technical director, made a memorable contribution to the Shaw Festival’s riotous production of Androcles And The Lion.

He ended up on the stage of the venerable Court House Theatre — playing the lion.

Pidgeon happened to be in the audience that evening, and had been plucked from its midst, equipped with a scrofulous wig and bedraggled tail, and assigned the task of delivering assorted roars, growls and moans until actor Patrick Galligan, in the role of the kindly Christian tailor, Androcles, removed a painful thorn from the creature’s paw.

The motley magnificence of Pidgeon’s effort earned an appreciative burst of applause before he was allowed to return to his seat and become a member of the audience again. But not an invisible member of that audience — no one in the house really was.

 

Tim Carroll, the festival’s new artistic director, relishes the opportunity to tear down the “fourth wall” separating performers from spectators. He’s into audience participation in a big way, and in his version of Bernard Shaw’s 1912 comedy he even keeps the house lights on to ensure that everyone present — performers and audience members alike — remain aware of each other. And Tom Pidgeon was only one among several playgoers coaxed into active participation as Carroll carried his fascination with what he’s called “two-way” theatre even further.

At each performance, as audience members take their seats, cast members in casual rehearsal clothes wander about, greeting and chatting with new arrivals. Later there are direct addresses to the audience — first to sort out the lion business, and then to hand out coloured balls to spectators along with an invitation to toss them on stage during the performance. Depending on the colour, the arrival of a ball may trigger a burst of hymn singing or maybe the recitation of an excerpt from Shaw’s lengthy and often irreverent preface to the play — or even a bit of personal reflection about the religious experience, since Androcles And The Lion is, after all, a play about the testing of Christian faith in an era when true believers were in danger if being tossed to the lions by their Roman oppressors.

There’s a certain madcap aspect to many of these moments — indeed on more than one occasion cast members seemed in danger of losing it. So it’s valid to wonder to what degree such shenanigans devalue the currency of the play.

After all, Androcles  And The Lion does focus on a group of Christian prisoners heading for their doom. It seizes on perhaps the most famous of Aesop’s fables to examine the testing of one’s faith and the nature of martyrdom. And it further enlivens proceedings with some typically Shavian debate on these matters.

Such concerns also hover over Saint Joan, the other Shaw play being presented at the festival this season. It too has been directed by Tim Carroll — and brilliantly. But the Festival Theatre production of Saint Joan is driven by an intellectual and metaphysical rigour that would not sit comfortably amidst the breezy mayhem taking place on at the Court House.

However, Carroll realizes that Androcles And The Lion offers GBS in a more capricious mood, assuming one of his favourite incarnations — that of the unrepentant provocateur. Shaw always loved to ruffle feathers — hence, on this occasion, Christianity is equated with with Communism — but he was also determined to give audiences a good time in the process.

It can be argued that in this production Carroll takes liberties that will leave purists howling. (And not only purists: some of us are also becoming weary of the current audience-participation cult.) However it can also be argued that the philosophical arguments which provide the sinew of the play are still here, twining their way firmly and sometimes outrageously through the horseplay.

Only confident ensemble playing by members of a justly renowned acting company could bring this off — which is why the most lasting impression this production leaves is the quality of the performances. Patrick Galligan’s simplicity — simplicity of faith, of kindness, of essential goodness — guarantees us a memorable Androcles. Is there something dopey about his cheerful martyrdom? Perhaps, but we can’t be too rough on a lover of all God’s creatures who bemoans the thought of a heaven without animals. And anyhow, we know that when he enters that bloody arena to meet his fate, his old chum, the lion, will do him no harm: both Shaw and Aesop guarantee a happy ending.

There is forceful work from Kyle Blair as an upright Roman captain and Julia Course as Lavinia, the devout Christian whom he urges to abandon her faith. Jeff Irving is excellent as a fierce convert who finds it a terrible challenge to turn the other cheek. Neil Barclay adeptly ensures a measure of jolly menace for the character of the emperor, and Jenny L. Wright portrays the wife of the henpecked Androcles with robust enthusiasm..

It’s a production that sees supporting performances delivered with precision — among them Jay Turvey as a driver of oxen, Shawn Wright as a Centurion, Michael Therriault as Spintho, one of those guys who figures he can bargain with God.

Carroll delivers a spirited production, full of engaging physical business but also retaining moments of intellectual argument that have the force and vigour of a ping pong game. And when Androcles and the lion finally meet again, this director’s imagination is in full flight as silhouetted figures take over the action — yet how close the scene comes, in its own way, to the playwright’s stage directions.

So, ultimately, how well is the play served in this production? Well, critic Desmond McCarthy, perhaps the wisest and most discerning of Shaw interpreters, would no doubt have approved. He once suggested that the bearded playwright had invented a new form with this play — that of the religious pantomime: “Its nearest parallel as a dramatic entertainment is one of those old miracle plays in which buffoonery and religion were mixed pell-mell together . . . .”

And now we have Tim Carroll, in a program note, calling it a mixture of “romantic comedy, social satire, political commentary, religious rumination, children’s pantomime and vaudevillian slapstick.” More to the point, he labels it “a crazy mishmash.” Well, he’s right. And that is all to the good.

(Androcles And The Lion continues at the Shaw Festival to Oct. 7. Ticket information at 1 800 511 7429 or shawfest.com)