Onstage / Shaw offers two interactive shows and a Friel classic
Andorcles and the Lion
Photos by David Cooper
By Bernard Shaw
Director: Tim Carroll
The folktale of Androcles, who is saved from violent death by the mercy of the lion he’d formerly helped, is a familiar one, and it is this story that inspires Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. And though the play has been criticized for its inconsistent tone—it veers wildly from comedy to sermonizing to slapstick to Shaw’s characteristic long commentaries—it’s got two film versions to its credit, even as it has only been done twice before at Shaw. New artistic director Tim Carroll, in an effort to further his mission for interactive theater while also revisiting this rarely produced play, has decided to embrace the inconsistent tone by making this production different every night.
Beginning with the cast mingling with the audience and continuing with random audience-prompted intrusions that spur the cast—midshow—to song, personal reflection, excerpts from the play’s preface that is two times the length of the play, or even just sharing what’s currently on their minds—this Lion is a different animal. The emcee also rotates every show, so the brand of humor and improv also changes the tenor of the shows.
It’s interesting that Shaw didn’t like his plays—and this one specifically, as noted in the program notes—to be seen as comedies, but encouraging laughter seems a goal for this production. The text is honored, but, given the post-show chatter, Shaw’s themes of self-sacrifice and salvation or religious laws vs. personal beliefs aren’t what captured the minds of audience members. Which leads to an interesting conundrum: if this is what it takes to make Shaw show palatable for modern audiences, is it worth the price? Ultimately, I’m going to say yes: the show was enjoyable, the opening night audience embraced it, and they did come away with knowledge of this play and a continued awareness of Shaw, which is, after all, the festival’s mission—albeit one that becomes increasingly difficult when the honoree’s plays are no longer the main attraction.
Androcles and the Lion runs through October 7 at the at the Court House Theatre, 26 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.
By Oscar Wilde, adapted by Kate Hennig
Director: Christine Brubaker
Starring: Marion Day, Emily Lukasik, PJ Prudat, Sanjay Talwar, Jonathan Tan, Kelly Wong
Family-friendly musicals have found their way to the Shaw Festival in the past, but Introducing children’s theater—complete with a preshow workshop that invites kids to help prep their participation in the show—is a no-brainer that new artistic director Tim Carroll was quick to introduce. Wilde Tales—based on The Happy Prince and Other Tales, a collection written in 1888—has it all: stories are interwoven seamlessly, costumes engage imagination, puppetry complements but doesn’t overwhelm, actors make big choices but don’t condescend, kids are involved but don’t take over the show, and there is plenty of humor for adults. We expect this in the best children’s theater, and it’s all here.
What we might not expect in children’s theater is the dark nature of this material (the three main tales end in death), but all delivered in voices cheery enough to perhaps distract audiences from its messages of futility. For example, in “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a nightingale sacrifices itself to help a young man win a girl’s love, but the girl spurns him anyway.
The “comic relief” of “The Remarkable Rocket,” is divided into four parts and serves to punctuate the other stories with continuing narrative, a device that works well to recenter the audience and also keep things from becoming too dark for too long. Sanjay Talwar’s comedic take on the titular rocket character, and the running gags he brings with him, made him the hands-on favorite among the younger set.
Though Hennig borrows a line from Wilde’s Lady Windemere’s Fan—“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”—to end the show on an hopeful note, it was still hard not to wonder what the kids in the audience were making of these stories, and also to ponder why Wilde wrote comedies for the grown-ups and such dark fare for his children. Granted, they’re tales of Christian suffering and—and, briefly, at the end of each—redemption, but it’s almost certain the kids aren’t getting any of that.
To be fair, the show is subtitled Stories for Young and Old, and there is certainly something for everybody in Shaw’s latest, fifty-five-minute lunchtime offering. As you enjoy the treat of some new Wilde material, also be preparing for questions from the kids on the way home. That’s not a bad thing; it is perhaps what children’s theater should aim for above all.
By Brian Friel
Director: Krista Jackson
Starring: Fiona Byrne, Diana Donnelly, Claire Jullien, Sarena Parmar, Tara Rosling
The most compelling thing about Dancing at Lughnasa is the five Mundy sisters, living an ordinary summer, and finding hope, love, magic, and tragedy within. Though the play presents opposing forces—Catholicism vs. paganism, financial security vs. poverty, hopelessness vs. yearning for fulfillment—they don’t create plot as much as context, a backdrop for the static lives of the five unmarried sisters. That all of these things serve to oppress women in 1930s Ireland is a relentless undercurrent that eventually sweeps them away.
Presented as a memory play narrated by Michael, the “love child” of youngest sister Christina and one of three men on the outskirts of the sisters, the play nonetheless delivers large stretches where Michael is not even present, and we become aware that the sisters’ collective memory is the heart of the play. As such, Dancing becomes about what was and what might have been, both potential pivotal moments and the day-to-day mundanities that carry more weight in retrospect, once things worsen. The sisters’ futures are foretold by Michael but don’t happen on stage; the result is an added layer of poignancy over the tea, the dancing, the knitting, and the familiar bonds that are about to become nostalgia.
It’s the arrival of the sixth sibling—missionary Jack, returned from Uganda having abandoned Catholicism—who disrupts the rhythm established by the sisters and sets the downward spiral in motion. The character also disrupts the play, dragging the energy from it in a way that makes the audience feel the foreboding—even if Michael hadn’t told us everything in monologues that can fairly be called spoilers.
You can’t stage Dancing at Lughnasa without a powerhouse cast, and Shaw has put some of its best in this show including a dark-haired Tara Rosling, barely recognizable from last year’s stint as Alice and imbuing Maggie with a tenderhearted toughness that’s incredibly moving. Those are the moments that make Lughnasa special; you may be tempted to figure out what it all means, but if you instead try to see the sepia-toned snapshots taken the day before, you might find the parts more satisfying than the whole.
Dancing at Lughnasa runs through October 15 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada.
Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young.