George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man was first produced in 1894, yet his attack on his country’s romanticizing of war, misplaced heroism, and overzealous patriotism strikes a timely chord. The socialist Shaw was never afraid to debunk conventional mores and he used wit and words-words-words to get not only his antiwar message across but loaded his verbal canons against the societal norms of gender and class.
Constellation Theatre is a company that likewise never shies away from epic themes and big ideas, and here director Allison Arkell Stockman and her ensemble of talented actors go full charge.
A young Bulgarian woman awaits her fiancé off at war and dreamily fantasizes about his dashing uniform and heroic deeds. The realities of war come upon her as a fugitive enemy soldier bursts into her bedroom, and she finds herself offering him her protection and an opportunity to escape capture. The war soon ends, and the political background shifts to “peace but not friendly relations.” Everyone discovers that all notions of going back to the way things were have been upended. The family’s dreams of romance, fidelity, and honor are shattered, and some pretty shocking truths about a new world order are revealed.
The play is not without its challenges. As so often in his plays, Shaw crafts his polemic battle setting up characters on two sides of an argument. He places Raina Petkoff, the young Bulgarian woman (Amy Quiggins), and her fiancé soldier Sergius Saranoff (Mark Krawczyk) on the side representing over-the-top romanticism. The two become rivals in fact as to who is the most noble. “Let me be the worshipper,” Sergius corrects his young fiancé at one point. They are joined by Raina’s mother, Catherine (Ellen Young), who sees her daughter’s alliance as a way to advance herself socially and materialistically in society. She is positively devoted to her future son-in-law in the same way she is devoted to her recent idea of cultural advancement being bestowed on the family by acquiring a library with an electric bell with which to ring for the servants.
Shaw has painted these characters with very broad strokes, and Stockman has directed the actors to play in a full melodramatic style. Krawczyk pulls it off especially well by finding a way to reel between heroic posturing and pummeling himself in moments when he finds he is not quite so perfect as he had believed. He mixes the ingredients of comedy with great flare. Think early Kevin Kline meets Monty Python. The two female characters are somewhat less successful in finding physical and musical variation with their overblown stylized delivery. I wished for instance that the director and actress had found more moments where the lead character of Raina, who carries so much of the first act, might drop her mask and vary the high-speed of the stock romantic maiden.
The other side of Shaw’s dramatic argument fares better. Michael John Casey, as Captain Bluntschli, is particularly successful in embodying the “chocolate solider”, the name Raina gives to her enemy soldier because he’s Swiss with a penchant for chocolates. In his first scene in Raina’s bedroom, with the sound of gunfire coming from just beyond the window, Casey conveys the horrifying reality of a soldier’s life constantly under fire while physicalizing comedic moments of being a nervous-as-a-mouse coward. Later in the play, his character, clear minded and sharp, sets Sergius straight about the differences between them as soldiers. Sergius is a hero and often a blundering and dangerous fool. Captain Bluntschli, on the other hand, is a mercenary, and thus a cool, calculating individual who uses cowardice, when it serves him, to survive.
Casey is able to convince the audience to care deeply about some of Shaw’s strongest (and longest) didactic speeches while finding soft moments of tenderness towards Raina. Even though as written Bluntschi’s and Raina’s union is pretty unlikely, Casey pulls his role as lover off in a way I’ve never believed in any other production. Casey shakes his head at Raina’s carryings on but as he comes to understand her, he follows her antics with an appreciative twinkle in his eye. His is a very nuanced performance. Truth to tell, Bluntschli is Shaw’s modern man and, as such, Casey has the easier task of using comedic undercutting and asides to assist him in bringing the audience over to his side.
Brynn Tucker as the Petkoff’s maid is a total delight. Last season, she played the most statuesque and fluid Guinevere in Synetic’s wet and wild King Arthur. She is a young actress already skilled in the use of tempo changes and silence to play the music of Shaw’s language. Here, she delivers Louka with flashing perkiness and little pouts, and she reels the audience in to her just as she reels in poor Sergius. None of us get the chance to resist, so when she turns the tables and shows a steely, calculating side, we surrender.
Surprisingly, the biggest dramatic turn for me in the evening came with the scene where the servant Nicola, Louka’s betrothed, makes a supreme sacrifice. Daniel Flint carries off the role with such dignity and resolve that it made me gasp even though I am familiar with the play. Shaw leaves us with the question of whether Nicola’s lie is heroism or base opportunism.
Audience members who think they know the limitations of the Source space as scenically “small theatre” are in for another surprise provided by Scenic/Lighting designer A.J. Guban. I’ll just say to add to your evening’s pleasure, don’t leave your seat at the end of Act I but stay for the set change.
Allison Arkell Stockman and her Constellation Theatre Company have taken on an heroic challenge and more than respectably pulled off the kind of language play with big ideas that we need more of in Washington.
Get yourself to Arms and the Man for a night of comedy and political satire.
Arms and the Man
by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
Produced by Constellation Theatre Company
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission