Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Arms and the Man"

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note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi


by George Bernard Shaw
directed by Spiro Veloudos

Catherine Petkoff ... Bobbie Steinbach
Raina Petkoff ... Ellen Adair
Louka ... Sarah Abrams
Nicola ... Peter A. Carey
Major Petkoff ... Ken Baltin
Sergius ... James Ryen
Bluntschili ... Barlow Adamson
Russian Soldier; Servant .. Allan Mayo
Servant ... Emma Putnam

Everyone should attend (or read) a Shaw play, now and then, and have their brains recharged by the Irishman’s spins on love, marriage, honor and such. For all of his brilliance, Mr. Shaw did not revolutionize his society as planned but he did revolutionize its theatre, swapping melodrama for drawing rooms and thrusting “unpleasant” topics under Victorian noses with little box office for his pains --- Mr. Shaw then turned “pleasant”, coated his truths in High Comedy and established himself; he jabbed where others had only tickled, and he got away with it, too.

ARMS AND THE MAN (1894), an early “pleasant” success, is set in a Bulgarian household caught up in a Serbo-Bulgarian war (by randomly selecting the Balkans for his setting Mr. Shaw proved prophetic as that area’s conflicts would later spark the First World War): Raina Petkoff, a major’s daughter, is engaged to the soldier Sergius, all pomp and circumstance; Raina’s romantic notions about war are challenged when Bluntschili, a Swiss deserter from the Serbian army, seeks refuge in her bedroom --- to him, war is a muddy, murderous business and he prefers to carry chocolates than weapons into battle. Meanwhile, Sergius, for all his chivalry, is attracted to Raina’s progressive maid Louka --- Victorian audiences, no doubt, were scandalized at Raina and Sergius finding their true mates by dropping their pretenses and (horrors!) being themselves.

The Lyric Stage of Boston began its season with 1776, where the forging of a nation was a romantic notion worth fighting for, and it now concludes with this anti-war comedy; under Spiro Veloudos’ direction, ARMS AND THE MAN becomes a bright, punchy sitcom in the Shavian manner, and Molly Trainer’s period costumes may be inspired by Klimt but none of her actresses appear to be corseted since they scurry and flop about, so freely (it is no small matter, on paper, that Raina meets Bluntschili when she is in her nightgown ­ i.e. herself ­ and reunites with Sergius when she is conventionally laced up). Ken Baltin and Bobbie Steinbach filter Major and Madame Petkoff through their routine hustle and bustle; Peter A. Carey does what he can to make the servant Nicola interesting, and you could break a window with Sarah Abrams’ Louka --- she is that hard and insolent. James Ryen’s Sergius is a strapping, handsome Big Kid, nicely poised between dash and parody; Bluntschli’s first scene allows Barlow Adamson to do his unique gentle-burly thing; after casting his spell, Mr. Adamson falls back on crack timing.

As Raina, Ellen Adair deftly handles Mr. Shaw’s dialogue and continues to be watchable as well as listenable --- even a growing chilliness is in sync with her playwright’s New Women. I first encountered Ms. Adair as Eliza Doolittle, three winters ago; thus, it is fitting that she bids Boston farewell, for now, as Raina as she will be touring for a year with the American Shakespeare Center. I once compared Ms. Adair to “a long-stemmed rose unfolding in all its breathtaking promise” --- may she return to us with that promise in full bloom but warmed by the Bard’s verse.

"Arms and the Man" (4 May - 2 June)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 585-5678

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide