Review by Joe eriole
It’s 1885: in the distance, the Serbo-Bulgarian War is limping to a close in the aftermath of a bloody rout of the Serbs. A Swiss mercenary, with no allegiance to the cause of either side, has dragged himself, battered and bruised, from the front. We find him abandoned, cold, hungry, and desperate. How would George Bernard Shaw entertain us against that rich canvas? Well, with a romantic comedy, of course.
Arms and the Man is romantic in its reflections of 19th Century ideals of love, chivalry, and war. Its comedy is found in poking holes in those idealized conventions amidst legitimately funny repartee between the lovers. Our Swiss soldier, Bluntschli, and the young heiress, Raina, charm each other with the witty banter characteristic of all such romps; the plot unveils itself against the twists and turns of mistaken identity and the impossibly symmetrical alignment of potential suitors with partners who, in the early going, seem destined for other, less romantic, matches.
The players are: Raina, who opens the play betrothed to Sergius, the dashing and courageous Bulgarian officer who led the reckless charge which scattered Bluntschi’s Serbian troops; the ambitious Louka, engaged to Nicola, a fellow household servant whose sights are set much lower than hers; Raina’s parents, Major Petkoff and his wife Catherine, who are pragmatists to a fault – staunchly defending the society marriage of their daughter to Sergius, the nation’s most eligible,and wealthiest, bachelor in the opening Act, and just as pragmatically making way for the happier match of Raina and Bluntschli, when he turns out to be something more than a mercenary soldier with no place to call home.
Bluntschli’s charm is strong enough to do some damage to Raina’s youthful and romanticized notions of war and its heroes, which drives a wedge between her and Sergius. For his part, Sergius has also lost some faith in the luster of his own future as valiant officer and married man. In the aftermath of his derring-do on the field of battle, he is passed over for promotion by others less deserving, and he no sooner returns to the comfort of his fiancee’s warm embrace than he sets out in pursuit of her servant, Louka. The deeper message of the play is in the realization that the Swiss mercenary’s honesty is more noble (and romantic) in cowardly retreat, than is the aristocracy’s deceit in victory. In true romantic comedy style, even the aristocrats learn their lesson, and everyone has a chance to live happily ever after.
The language of the play, indicative of its author and its time, is beautiful to hear, and every member of the cast speaks it fluidly. Their mastery of the 19th century style makes the experience lyrical in a way we rarely hear in theater today.
In the same measure that the language of the period allows the cast to elevate the experience for us, the cast must overcome, on occasion, certain sensibilities of the period. Most of the time, outdated moral and societal concerns in revivals of plays of much earlier eras can be played as part of a “joke” in which the audience participates. The greatest challenge of this play’s period (and its author) may be in Sergius’ aggressively written “pursuit” of Louka. That it shows him being untrue to his fiancee and leveraging his position of power to encourage her reciprocation, are not, for better or for worse, notions foreign or outdated to modern audiences. That we are later encouraged to think of their match as part of the story’s “happy ending” is where the actors face a challenge. Austin Carrothers as Sergius and Maria Maurin as Louka, find a way.
Carrothers does enough with his character’s “epiphanies” to make the audience believe he may have ended the play as a better man than he was when we met him, and Maurin’s Louka is so self-determinative that we are convinced her choices are her own. Carrothers is an effective and commanding presence as both the brave soldier and insulted aristocrat, and shows range in portraying his character’s own disappointment in the loss of his black-and-white view of the world. Maurin demands undivided attention when she is on stage – funny, sharp and undaunted.
Wil Anderson as the Swiss mercenary Bluntschli, is utterly charming here. The audience never doubts that his lack of commitment to high-minded, cosmic causes, and his preference for life over valor, are quite real. But, at the same time, we are convinced that he is an able adversary in both love and war, a credit to Anderson’s understanding of the role’s potential.
Geneva Turner as Raina is the focal point of the play, always funny but never silly, worthy of the affections of both suitors, as formidable as Louka but armed with more subtle weapons. Turner’s performance never makes Raina less than the old-world aristocrat she is when we meet her, but her abilities do elevate Raina to something more.
Francine Ciccarelli (Catherine) and Andrew Joffe (Petkoff), as Raina’s mother and father, are a joy. Ciccarelli is elegant and absolutely in charge; Joffe will be loved by the audience as completely as he is loved by his wife and daughter. Both play the roles beyond the level of the familiar tropes of the wealthy matriarch and patriarch, into which the play could fit them were they lesser performers.
The cast is rounded out by Sean Owens and Michael Ralff. Owens’ turn as a soldier searching for the set-upon Bluntschli in Act One is suitably menacing. Ralff, playing Louka’s disappointing, “servant-minded” fiancee in Act One, has a wonderful turn in Act Two, in which he does a fine job performing what is perhaps the only truly selfless act in the story.
The production is directed with precision and great aesthetic appeal by Ellen Honig. As noted above, the characters have been developed as funny but never silly, sincere but not wooden. On stage movement is fluid. Marcia Panza’s costumes and Andrea Winston’s sets are both lovely.
Arms and the Man is well performed, beautifully presented, and a pleasure to hear as spoken art. It runs through April 21 at Performing Arts of Woodstock, 56 Rock City Road, Woodstock, with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 and Sunday afternoons at 1:30.
Joe Eriole is a local actor, director and artist, who has been part of the live music and theater arts community in the Hudson Valley for over 30 years. Professionally Joe is an attorney, organizational executive and management consultant. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife and has two children who are currently making the world a better place.