Theatre in Review: Arms and the Man (Gingold Theatrical Group/Theatre Row)

In the charming prologue to David Staller‘s production of George Bernard Shaw‘s classic comedy, we are warned that gunfire will be heard — but more predominant is the sound of romantic ideals merrily being shattered to bits. Arms and the Man is a prime example of Shaw’s knack for sneaking subversive ideas — in this case, a dismantling of war worship — into a romantic romp. The action unfolds during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, a two-week-long sortie that changed nothing except for a decrease in the population. Shaw’s heroine, Raina Petkoff, daughter of a Bulgarian major, is an imperious young thing consecrated to shining notions of patriotism, battle, and the aristocracy. (Throughout, Shaw is merciless in spoofing his characters’ social pretensions.) She also insists she is in love with a certain major, but we’ll see about that. In any case, her sense of self gets a thorough shaking up when Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary in panicked retreat (like the rest of the Serbian Army), hides out in her bedroom. Left alone with a warrior who favors chocolate over bullets, Raina fears she is courting scandal, but her troubles are deeper than that: Bluntschli embodies a skepticism that will make its way, in viral fashion, through the Petkoff household, sowing chaos in its wake.

Raina helps Bluntschli escape but, annoyingly, he won’t go away. Returning on a pretext, he is, alarmingly, discovered to be well-acquainted with her father, Paul, and her fiancé, Sergius. By now, hostilities have ceased and why shouldn’t men on opposing sides enjoy a good meal together? The ensuing embarrassments and deceptions are lightly handled by a suave and assured cast. Furiously pacing the stage while simultaneously demonstrating the attractive rustle of her skirt, Shanel Bailey‘s Raina plays the role of virtue outraged to the hilt. But whether sinking into a chair, her face crumbling in acknowledgment of a bitter truth, or bursting into laughter at her own nonsense, she is a modern woman stuck in a Victorian corset that feels increasingly constrictive. Ben Davis‘ Sergius is a cardboard conqueror, his manner seemingly honed at the Ronald Colman — Errol Flynn School of Dashing Heroism. Yet, alternately throwing himself at a fetching servant girl or declaiming like a matinee idol (“Every turn, a fresh abyss opening before me!”), he, like Raina, is exhausted from playing a false role. Both are ripe for deprogramming the hands of Keshav Moodliar‘s cool, practical Bluntschli, the heir to a Swiss hotel business who believes, above all, in living for another day.

Also: Delphi Borich possesses a penetrating stare as Louka, the maid, who keeps tabs on Raina’s indiscretions while making plans to marry far above her lot in life. Karen Ziemba, having transitioned from musical theatre leading lady to high comedy grand dame, uses her emollient manner and perfectly false, tinkling laugh to smooth over yet another impropriety. Thomas Jay Ryan amusingly charts Paul’s decline as he gradually discovers how badly gaslighted he is by his staff and loved ones. (“I’ve sensed an odd crackling in the air ever since I got home,” he mutters darkly, sniffing around for culprits; if only he knew.) Maintaining order, of a sort, is Evan Zes as Louka, the knows-all, sees-all manservant.

In accord with Staller’s sunnily stylized approach is Lindsay’s G. Fuori‘s scenic design, a witty, Edward Gorey-style pen-and-ink sketch that easily converts from Raina’s bedroom to the family garden. Tracy Christensen‘s costumes are notable for their attractive silhouettes and military flair. Julian Evans‘ sound design, which draws on performances of The Paragon Ragtime Orchestra, and Jamie Roderick‘s lighting are both solid.

Staller, drawing on his deep knowledge of Shaw, reshapes Arms and the Man to include instances of direct address at the top of each act, an idea the playwright seriously contemplated more than once. If the director occasionally pushes too hard — for example, when the company freezes in a frantic, guilty tableau more suitable for a Feydeau farce — he has plenty of successes: Raina wielding her fan like a switchblade; Louka making a startlingly bold advance on a backpedaling Sergius; the glee with which Catherine works the family’s most notable possessions — An electric bell! A library with twelve books! — into every possible sentence.

At the same time, Staller’s production never loses sight of the pointless slaughter taking place just offstage, executed in the name of national honor or some such thing. Arms and the Man ends happily, but only because everyone onstage has become thoroughly disillusioned. I wonder what an audience steeped in empire made of it; in any case, it remains distressingly relevant. There’s a bitter truth at the play’s heart, but in this case, it goes down like candy. If that was Shaw’s gift, it is Staller’s, too.–David Barbour