Sunday, July 11, 2010

REVIEW: STNJ "Arms and the Man" Sparkles with Wit and Weighty Subject

The great disconnect between the heroic, romantic view of war and its harsh realities has been decried by writers throughout the centuries, from Greek dramatist Aeschylus’s anti-war tragedy The Persians to Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage to Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I opus All Quiet on the Western Front. Even the great Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw—he of the sharp intellect and even sharper wit—put in his two cents in Arms and the Man, a play with serious underpinnings all dressed up as a comedy.

Now, 20 years after mounting a similar production, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has undertaken an elegant, funny, albeit thought-provoking, production of Shaw’s play about a veteran soldier’s collision with the artificial world of romantic posturing rampant in what passes for high society on a Balkan (read: Bulgarian) backwater.

The place is the estate of the Petkoff family, the richest in Bulgaria during the two-week long Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, just after the three-day Battle of Slivnitza, the turning point in the war. These regional skirmishes were precursors to World War I (a k a “The Great War” or “The War to End All Wars”), which was fought for similar ludicrous reasons, resulted in a massive loss of life and revolutionized modern warfare.

The plot involves Captain Bluntschli, a war-weary, chocolate-chomping Swiss soldier-of-fortune fighting for Serbia, who while retreating from the Bulgarian victors seeks refuge in the bedroom of the family’s lovely, refined daughter Raina, who is engaged to Sergius Saranoff, the hero of the battle of Slivnitza, whom she idolizes. Although his views on the military ("Remember, nine soldiers out of ten are born fools") and disdainful account of the vainglorious Sergius's foolhardy charge run counter to her starry notions and high ideals, she hides him from a pursuing Russian soldier; Raina and her mother Catherine then smuggle Bluntschli out of the house in Raina’s father’s coat so he can return to his regiment undetected.

When Sergius and Paul Petkoff return from battle, both continue to mouth romantic notions about war. Raina and Sergius pose, posture and voice inanities, making us scratch our heads as to whether the two are insane or just lost in space. The subsequent return of Raina’s "chocolate cream soldier" sets in motion romantic entanglements that include Louka, the family maid who is having a clandestine affair with Sergius. And when Raina realizes that Bluntschli respects her as a real woman (which Serguis does not) and she confronts the hollowness of her romantic ideals, the play ends with the two new couples declaring their love so that all ends well.

A lovely set designed by Charlie Calvert makes for three different settings changed with choreographed precision between acts. Director Joe Discher maintains a light touch with the material without losing sight of Shaw’s serious intent. Nisi Sturgis is luminous as Raina; one needs sunglasses whenever she’s onstage. But it’s her mobile facial expressions that convey her character’s inner life. Just watching her roll her eyes, raise an eyebrow or stick her nose in the air elicits laughter. Anthony Marble is equally as droll as Sergius, more paper soldier than real battle veteran. He has some very funny shtick wherein he awkwardly knocks over flowerpots and a jar of quill pens and officiously announces, “I never withdraw” and “I never make a mistake.” In the role of Bluntschli, Sean Mahan is charming, clear-eyed, but he never scolds Raina for her starry-eyed notions about love and war. In an efficient Swiss way, Mahan's chocolate cream soldier provides the counterweight to such ridiculous ideas, making us like him and root for his success with the lovely Raina. And when he does bring her around, we silently cheer.

Catherine Petkoff is played by Anne-Marie Cusson (who uncannily resembles the late Lynne Redgrave) as a real force of nature to be reckoned with. Her husband Paul, played by Bill Christ, likes to think he’s upper class but comes across as a barbarian (he thinks bathing is uncivilized), but Christ gives the man just the right amount of affectation and swagger to be funny without becoming a caricature.

As Nicola, Ames Adamson conveys “the soul of a servant,” so necessary to getting by in this caste-conscious society, without overdoing it. Indeed, his seriousness says he considers being a servant a profession, one he’s especially good at. Helen Farmer shines brightly as Louka, the Bulgarian peasant girl turned servant, who has a mind of her own and a rebellious spirit to go with it. She’s deliciously cunning and ripe; you want to jump out of your chair and plant a solid kiss on her luscious lips. She’ll surely give Sergius a run for his money!

Arms and the Man, Shaw’s 1894 comedic “confection,” is one of the world’s most beloved plays, and the STNJ production shows us why. With all the current posturing about “winning” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the talk about patriotism and getting “them” over there so “they” can’t get us over here, the play is the right play at the right time. And the fact that Shaw makes us laugh at his characters’ poses and the lies they tell each other and themselves makes his somber message palatable.

Arms and the Man will be performed Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM and Sunday evening at 7 PM through August 1. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is located at 36 Madison Avenue in Madison on the campus of Drew University. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit online at http://www.shakespearenj.org/.

Photos ©Joe Geinert