George Bernard Shaw, for whom Canada’s Shaw Festival is named, was noted for his strong political, gender, governmental and education views. His special target of biting, yet often subtle satire, was the church. It didn’t matter the denomination. Shaw skewered all organized religion.
The preface of his “Androcles and the Lion,” which is often referred to as “The Gospels of Shaw,” is an examination of the writer’s analysis of “The Bible” which proclaims the Irishman’s belief that Jesus was a benevolent genius, was brought to popularity due to his martyrdom, but whose ideas were lost at his crucifixion as the Christian church followed the teachings of Paul and substituted ritual for Christ’s philosophy. The preface, interestingly enough, is longer than the 1912 short play.
Shaw tells the tale of Androcles (the delightful Patrick Galligan), a Christian tailor, who, while wandering in the forest with his nagging wife, came upon the injured lion and removed a thorn from the paw of the king of the jungle.
Androcles is captured, along with many Christians, and is brought to the Colosseum by the Romans. Their fate is to be thrown to the lions or participate in gladiatorial combat.
Among the others in his group are Ferrovius (the studly Jeff Irving), a recent Christian convert, who is in a personal torment between his natural violent inclinations and his newly found piousness, and Lavinia (lovely Julia Course), a convert to whom a Roman captain (kindly Kyle Blair) is attracted.
The Christians are sent to the arena to be eaten by lions or killed by the gladiator. When Androcles is sent in, he is confronted by the same lion from whose paw he had taken out the splinter. Instead of killing Androcles, the appreciative lion befriends him.
Androcles is not the only one who is saved. Ferrovius throws off his religious mantel and kills all the gladiators, is offered a position in the Pretorian Guard, and the rest of the Christians are released because of his bravery, and, of course, Androcles and his friendly lion dance around the arena to the delight of all.
When the Emperor enters the arena the lion attacks him. Androcles asks him to save the Emperor. The lion does so. The Emperor then declares that the siege of the Christians over and Androcles and the lion depart together.
Sounds like morbid tale. No! In the hands of the creative direction of Tim Carroll, the Shaw’s new Artistic Director, the production is delightful.
Carroll states in his program notes, “You are about to see a show made with love and respect for the material, but with a complete absence of reverence.”
Using his newly declared request for a more inclusive method of directing and staging plays, which has been embraced by the staff, the Lion is played by a randomly picked member of the audience (with on-stage coaching by the cast), Stories about those in attendance are shared by cast members who spent a long period before the opening “lights up” with those in attendance, and personal stories are shared by cast members based on colored balls being thrown on stage by audience members.
Each ball, which had been distributed to viewers by cast members, has been assigned a specific task. A cane taken from a woman in the first row of the audience becomes a major prop, money is taken from a gentleman as a “donation to the actor’s fund.” And, so on and so on, building on the concept of inclusion and the delight of the audience.
The flexibility of the production is well-illustrated by a note in the program stating, “Due to the nature of this production, the running time is approximately 1 hour and 55 minutes to 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.”
Capsule judgement: The Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion” is a total delight while leaving no doubt of the writer’s negative views about organized religion and oppressive politics. The entire production is free of pretense, is audience centered, fresh, and a must see for anyone interested in experiencing inclusive theatre at is finest. Of the 2017 season’s shows, this is probably my favorite!
For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.