THE BASICS: Bernard Shaw’s wild and woolly take on this ancient, well known tale has been adapted by the Shaw’s new Artistic Director, Tim Carroll (and to some extent, the whole ensemble of fourteen), and plays in repertory at the Court House Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake through October 7th.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Androcles the tale concerns a meek, pious Christian tailor in the days of the Roman Empire, when Christians were routinely on the bill of fare for hungry lions at the Colosseum. Our hero, Androcles, on the run, befriends a wild lion in distress. Years later, when he’s been captured and is being served up as lion food, he’s befriended by the very same beast, who returns his former good deed in spades. Shaw seems to have very little interest in the tale’s inspiring message, however. He uses ANDROCLES as a launching pad for a fierce and funny examination of religion, Christianity in particular.
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: I had not seen ANDROCLES in a very long time, though I retain vague happy memories of a 1967 TV adaptation starring Norman Wisdom. When I heard that director Carroll and company were transforming it into an audience participation piece, I’ll admit that I was filled with trepidation. Would this happy hodgepodge of a play be cut to ribbons? Happily, this is not the case, although big liberties have been taken, in an effort to achieve “spontaneity” and actor-audience bonding. One audience member is chosen to play the Lion in Scene One. Another helps pick the cast “Emcee” for the show, drawing out a numbered slip from a fishbowl. Still others throw balls of different colors onstage at odd intervals; retrieving ensemble members oblige them with personal anecdotes, stories gleaned from the audience before and during the show, and condensed bits from Shaw’s own voluminous (37,000 word!) Preface and Afterward. These additions insure that the various performances will be like snowflakes—no two exactly alike. Reading this, some people will no doubt be thinking “How clever. How refreshing. How enchanting!”
Director Carroll is obviously hoping that you people will be attending in droves.
Director Carroll is obviously hoping that you people will be attending in droves. Others of us, mainly traditionalists and authors, I suspect, are bound to have a very different reaction. I would say this is nothing but a big boatload of gimmickry, and is permissible only because poor old GBS is not around to say “No!”. Shaw did not like people taking liberties with his works; ask all the ghosts of the many Hollywood people who tried to bring his plays to the screen over the years! Further, as guardians of his legacy, the Shaw Festival has a responsibility to stage the pieces as they were written. Many theatergoers are coming to these wonderful plays for the first time; do they not deserve high quality, straightforward, right-from-the-pen productions? My goodness, there are so many ways to be creative without compromising the playwright’s actual words! Please start giving that approach a try, won’t you, Mr. Carroll?
Now, despite these serious reservations, and some problematic casting (see below), ANDROCLES ends up being an entertaining show. There are reasons for this. A lot of the Shaw dialogue is retained, and it provides of us with plenty of laughs, as well as plenty to chew on (Shaw himself declared that ANDROCLES was not a comedy (although it is), to make sure that we pay enough attention to all the critical, thought provoking stuff about the Church and its doctrines.) This is also because, ensemble wise, we are in very capable hands. You know this the minute the cast begins singing, in disciplined four-part harmony. There are moments, especially when improvisation reigns, that you feel like you are watching bad children’s theater. Happily, none of these last too long. Playwright Shaw keeps riding back to the rescue!
While neither Patrick Galligan or Jenny L. Wright are quite the ticket physically for Androcles and his carping wife, and they are not the sort of James Thurber-ish couple that Shaw clearly intended here (listen for the dialogue “tells”), this isn’t a calamity, as they are both so adept in their roles. Jeff Irving is spot on as the tormented warrior turned Christian, Ferrovius, and comes close to stealing the show. Kudos also to Julia Course for her fetching, unwavering Lavinia, and to Neil Barclay for his wavering, witty, world-wise Emperor (shades of Peter Ustinov). Shawn Wright is consistently amusing as the Centurion, channeling (or so it seemed to me) Kenneth Mars in “Young Frankenstein”.
This production’s “creative” approach to The Lion is a major failure, in my view. The audience is being asked to meld three hugely different representations—one a tiny shadow puppet, another basically a giant “floating” bronze mask—into a single satisfying and functional entity. This is just too much to ask. And to make matters worse, the big Androcles/Lion reunion, laid out quite specifically by GBS in a long stage direction, has gotten the axe at the Court House. So much for good storytelling…
There are some pleasing costume pieces by Dana Osborne on display, and music director Paul Sportelli has composed a darling little overture that is played enthusiastically by the entire ensemble, on a motley band of instruments.
IN SUM: In spite of all my objections (see above), this ANDROCLES AND THE LION is an enjoyable outing, at once funny and thought provoking. The original text takes a beating in spots, but Shaw’s literary brilliance ultimately prevails. It’s not exactly a “family” show, but it’s certainly suitable for older kids, who will probably want to discuss it with you on your way home from Niagara-on-the-Lake!
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!