The special pleasure of G.B. Shaw is in his literate, theatrical intelligence. His mastery of stage action allows the story to proceed with clarity and assurance, and his characters are always keenly observed, amusingly detailed and disarmingly familiar. What really elevates Shaw above other comic craftsmen, however, is the richness of his ideas, and the balanced way in which they are presented. We get them from the action, from the conception and interaction of the characters, and directly from the playwright himself.
"Arms and the Man", an early play of Shaw's, displays all those qualities, and with a whimsical charm sometimes missing in his more substantial, later plays. This production, confidently directed by Bartlett Sher, is amusing and engaging, romantic and intriguing. In a context of war (albeit remote and rather comic), serious questions of patriotism, idealism, militarism and heroism are posed through a trifling romance between a borrowed Swiss soldier and a shallow, idealistic young woman. It's the kind of sweet divertissement that earns our attention, and the kind of lightweight romantic comedy that wins our affection.
As Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss soldier fighting for the Serbians, John Prococcino achieves the perfect scale for this contrary character. A warrior with a pocket full of chocolates in the place of bullets, he is also the most clear-headed and reasonable character on stage. His attraction to the lovely Raina, played with elegance and grace by Margaret Welsh, feels reasonable and convincing. His lack of affectation and grandiosity is deliciously offset by Raina's Bulgarian officer fiancé, Sergius (Andrew Weems), and the comic opera absurdity of Major Petkoff (Laurence Ballard).
In the first act, Raina shelters Bluntschli from the Bulgarian troops, not realizing who he is or what the political consequence of her action might be. It is from just that sort of unaligned human connection that questions of nationalism are posed. That early action is a bit slow and diffuse, but both Shaw and this production soon pull the strings together, and what seemed rather inconsequential quickly takes on importance. Beyond the obvious military figures, and the romantic alliances formed by the various factions, there are two lovely servant characters to present the arguments of Shaw's social passions. Mari Nelson is stunning as a chiaroscuro serving-maid at war in the fine dining rooms of class discrimination. Equally effective and much more subtle is R. Hamilton Wright as a butler who knows the social battlefield like a combat hardened general, weary of the fighting but unable to declare a truce.
Perfectly appropriate to this rich and handsomely appointed writing is the set by Edie Whitsett, and the marvelous detail of the costumes by Deb Trout. Whether simple and unaffected, broadly comic, or just elegantly designed and built, the clothes always extend the characters in appropriate and inventive ways.
Bartlett Sher is clearly a director fully capable of providing the intellectual richness, theatrical expertise and social conviction of George Bernard Shaw, and doing it without it ever making it seem labored or contrived. This is a classy evening of elegant, intelligent entertainment, a warm romance and a good giggle that also manages to be about something worth considering. Isn't that worthy of some sort of medal?
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