Tim Carroll, the new artistic director of the Shaw Festival, likes to be called TC, but I've taken to calling him Pastor Tim, after the Christian minister whose chipper demeanour baffles the dour Soviet spies on the 1980s-set television drama The Americans.
This is, in part, because he makes this critic feel like an undercover agent in thrall to a dying ideology, half repulsed and half intrigued as I sit in the dark taking notes about his cheerful, church-basement approach to running one of the country's major theatre companies.
In his inaugural season, Carroll has definitely brought a Christian youth group sensibility to the Shaw. Smiling actors have regularly been found on stage welcoming audiences to shows as they arrive, and before every performance, a performer or stagehand or administrator will go up and, in essence, testify to the personal power of live theatre.
At the opening of Dancing at Lughnasa, for example, executive director Tim Jennings (aka The Other Tim) could be found banging on a bodhrán drum and singing a traditional Irish tune.
Carroll's artistic doctrine is what he calls "two-way theatre" – and you'll find it on display in its fundamentalist form in his new interactive production of Androcles and the Lion.
This 1912 comedy, relatively short by Bernard Shaw's standards, tells the story of a kindly Christian (Patrick Galligan) who pulls a thorn from the paw of a lion, and whose kindness is later repaid when the Romans try to feed him to that very same feline.
The parable is fleshed out with other Christians waiting to be devoured at the Imperial Circus. Lavinia (Julia Course) is a brainy beauty who refuses to marry a Roman soldier to save her life, while Ferrovius (Jeff Irving) is a brawny convert who hasn't quite mastered the art of turning the other cheek.
This being a Shaw play, everyone chit-chats as they await death. The followers of Christ all have a semi-serious, totally Shavian approach to their religion, while the pantheistic powers that be eventually reveal the pragmatism behind their rigidity. The playwright isn't really on one side or the other, but is interested in illustrating how religious persecution is, as he puts it, essentially an attempt to "suppress a propaganda" perceived to "threaten the interests involved in the established law and order."
It's not a great play on its own , but, in Carroll's Godspell-ish production, it's only part of a larger theatrical game or ritual.
At each performance of Androcles and the Lion, a different cast member serves as emcee, reading stage directions and explaining the rules. Other actors determine which roles they will play at curtain based on arm-wrestling competitions.
At least some audience members must play along. One patron will be plucked to perform the role of the lion for each performance, while four others are given differently coloured balls that they can throw on the stage at a moment of their choosing. One ball will result in the singing of a hymn; another leads to one of the personal testimonies Carroll is fond of; yet another will elicit a recitation of scripture (well, an excerpt from Shaw's preface to Androcles and the Lion, anyway).
This type of approach to the so-called classics is not entirely foreign to Canada's so-called classical theatres. Matthew Jocelyn, a few years before he was repatriated to run Canadian Stage, put on an even more irreverently improvisational production of Corneille's The Liar at the Stratford Festival. Jillian Keiley, inspired by Newfoundland culture, has made participation a part of much of her work, notably her As You Like It at Stratford last season, where patrons were handed bags of props as they entered.
Those shows were not greeted by universal acclaim – and what's different here is that Carroll is pursuing "two-way theatre" as a guiding philosophy for a whole company. He's an evangelist of sorts, and it seems no coincidence that he has programmed two shows about faith and martyrdom by Shaw for his first season. (This other is his fine Saint Joan on the main stage.)
There's no doubt Carroll's on a mission to save theatre's soul, and I, for one, am not yet ready to nail him to a cross. There are aspects of his Androcles and the Lion that I liked quite a bit. It is a joy to see an often-literally corseted Shaw ensemble let loose. Course, for instance, gives one her most freed performances to date as Lavinia.
Having seen enough work in this vein to not find it entirely fresh, however, I did wish Carroll had applied more rigour to the proceedings. There are elements here, such as a marching overture performed by the cast based on what I believe is a misreading of a stage direction, that teetered by my tolerance for the treacly.
And why not take improvised interventions beyond the larkish from time to time? There is, for instance, some cringe-worthy comedy between Androcles and his wife in Shaw's text, which culminates in the title character joking it's a "miracle" that he hasn't beat her. Here, a perforation in the performance would be natural – be it a little "Boy, that joke hasn't aged well, has it?" or a more serious aside from a cast member who has been affected by domestic violence.
As Androcles and the Lion will play differently on any given day, I figure I'll channel the spirit of Niagara-on-the-Lake's own Pastor Tim and let you, the reader, assign your own star rating after you see it – which, of course, anyone invested in the future direction of the Shaw Festival should.
Androcles and the Lion (shawfest.com) continues to October 7.