By Cameron Hughes
Opening on April 21, 1894, George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man was Shaw’s fourth play and his first commercial success.
The play takes place during and after the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War. Raina Petkoff (Shanel Bailey) is a young Bulgarian woman engaged to Major Sergius Saranoff (Ben Davis) who is off fighting the war. One night a Swiss citizen Captain Bluntschli (Keshav Moodliar), fighting for the enemy Serbian army, climbs in through Raina’s bedroom window and threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t help him.
Raina hides Bluntschli and soon gets to know this unusual soldier who carries chocolates instead of ammunition. Raina offers him some of her own chocolates which the soldier devours with enthusiasm, thus earning him the nickname of the Chocolate-Cream Soldier.
Bluntschli tells Raina of his unenthusiastic attitudes toward modern warfare, philosophies which shock Raina, and most likely surprised audiences of the day.
Raina hides Bluntschli from a search party (and from her own household) starting a sequence of events which trigger the farce.
Tension is heightened when the war ends and Raina’s father Major Paul Petkoff returns from the war along with Raina’s fiancee Major Saranoff.
Over the course of the show, we see the characters trying to make sense of the war as they juggle romantic liaisons among the family and the staff. The return of the Chocolate-Cream Soldier heightens the conflict – and the laughter.
This production has the actors addressing the audience directly before and after each act. Though based on some of Shaw’s ideas for the play, this is a bit off-putting and doesn’t help the show’s wobbly start.
The script presents difficult material for actors to play convincingly, and the cast struggles at first to mine the comic farcical aspects without over-emoting. They give energetic readings, but the tone of the performances, especially in the first Act, shift badly. Fortunately things gel by the third act when true hilarity ensues.
There are some wonderful moments here. Shanel Bailey and Ben Davis have fun playing their shallow, narcissistic characters, often with captivating results. Keshav Moodliar does a good job playing the different layers making up Bluntschli and generally has a solid connection to the farcical elements. Thomas Jay Ryan is solid as Major Paul Petkoff, and Karen Ziemba is fun – and funny – as Catherine Petkoff. Evan Zes and Delphi Borich as the household staff have several enjoyable moments with Zes coming across solid in her depiction and Borich showing great comic timing in his interactions.
The set is attractive, though in Act II, when it transitions from a bedroom to a garden, there isn’t much to visually set the two settings apart. There aren’t even any bushes or flowers to give us an indication we’re in a garden. Otherwise the venue is well equipped and comfortable with effective lighting and good acoustics.
This is challenging material. As written, the first two acts are difficult for actors to get a hold of. It’s an unusual and delicate farce; how should it be played? This ensemble holds onto this show with enthusiasm and rides it until the satisfying payoff of the final act, which is an enjoyable conclusion to the evening.
The show is in three acts with one intermission separating Act II from Act III.
With: Shanel Bailey (Raina Petkoff), Delphi Borich (Louka), Ben Davis (Major Sergius Saranoff), Keshav Moodliar (Bluntschli), Thomas Jay Ryan (Major Paul Petkoff), Evan Zes (Nicola), Karen Ziemba (Catherine Petkoff)
Creative Team: David Staller (Director), April Ann Kline (Production Stage Manager), Jade Doina (Assistant Stage Manager), Lindsay Genevieve Fuori (Set Designer), Tracy Christensen (Costume Designer), Jamie Roderick (Lighting Designer), Julian Evans (Sound Designer), Emmarose Campbell (Property Designer), Allie Posner (Production Manager), Logan Gabrielle Schulman (Assistant to the Director), Sam Spear (Technical Director), Ariel Kregar (Assistant Costume Designer), WKarine Ivey (Wardrobe Supervisor), Cassie Williams (Hair Design).