Hail the Byronic hero! He hurtles into battle on a valiant steed, sabre drawn, noble chin thrust forward, a lover’s scarf fluttering near his heart. His rage makes tyranny tremble.
When George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man, this was the stock stage hero. In those days, playwrights never described the gory details of war — merciful heavens, the idea! The audience already had a clear picture in mind. And make no mistake, his ardent flair and bulletproof bravery will win the day.
Shaw saw something else. “I am tired to utter disgust of imaginary life, imaginary law, imaginary ethics, science, peace, war, love, virtue, villainy,” he wrote, “both on stage and off.”
A soldier, he added, “is so utterly unmanned by discipline that he will kill me if he is told, even when he knows that the order is given because I am trying to overthrow the oppression which he fears and hates.”
Arms and the Man grafts this blunt, realistic view onto a conventional romantic comedy. Shaw peels away the gossamer of idealism and exposes bare reality. His aim is more than mere laughter. He wants to inspire “an affection for human nature as it is, and life as we must live it.”
It’s 1885. At the Petkoff estate in Bulgaria, Sergius and Raina play swoony, stylized lovers, as if romantic leads in an opera. Sergius is off to war where he executed, Raina hears, a thrilling, Byronic charge. She’s elated, because to her everything “must be splendid and noble,” since “real life is so seldom like that.” Their courtship has no genuine note.
Enter Bluntschli on the lam. A Captain in the defeated Serbian army, he makes an anti-heroic entrance: shimmies up a drainpipe to Raina’s balcony. Aptly named, Bluntschli doesn’t have a Byronic bone in his body. When he went to war he carried chocolates, not cartridges, in his ammo pouch.
“Courage is a quality for use and not display,” Shaw wrote. “A real soldier knows what he’s doing, not what Byron or stage conventions say he should.” And chocolate’s “the cheapest, most easily purchased sort of stomach-saver.”
In effect, Bluntschli arrests Raina’s addiction to idealism. A bit like Juliet teaching sonnet-spewing Romeo the language of real love, Raina learns to appreciate down to earth, eye-to-eye romance, shorn of fustian trappings.
There were two rarities at the Old Globe on opening night. Rain pummeled the roof — in May! — and George Bernard Shaw was back in town. Owing to local marketing trepidations more imagined than real, the Old Curmudgeon makes rare visits to these parts. And though Arms and the Man, directed by Jessica Stone, betrays an antsy itch to entertain, it’s a pleaser.
Ralph Funicello’s large, excellent sets recall the lavish stage pictures of old Old Globe shows — but with a Shavian rinse. Like the play, they’re a cross between refinement and barbarity. For Act one, Raina’s wide bedchamber has a sculpted sweep, but the walls are drab, unvarnished planks; for Act three, the only library in Bulgaria (with maybe a dozen books) has a rustic, half-finished feel as well. Before each act, a single chair stands before the bright red curtain — a chaise longue, a bench, and a Turkish ottoman. Rumblings behind the curtain suggest massive pieces moving — even “flying” — into place, the way they would in 1894, when Arms was first produced.
David Israel Reynoso’s fine costumes have the appropriate plus/minus feel as well, though he permits himself one awe-inspirer in Act one: Raina’s “cloak,” a floor-length mink, with a train trailing behind, drew gasps of envy from first-nighters.
Shaw wrote that, onstage, “Bluntschli and Raina cannot fail, though they can of course be played more or less well.” Zach Appelman and Wrenn Schmidt, he the unadorned pragmatist, she the wannabe diva, play them quite well (Appelman’s Bluntchli is such a realist he even scrapes out crumbs from the crème chocolate box).
Conrad John Schuck nicely underplays Major Petkoff’s “barbarian” tendencies. Though she has some indelibly funny moments (as when Catherine has a sore throat from bathing too much), Marsha Mason tends to overplay the Major’s wife.
Shaw wrote that “all Sergius’ scenes are horribly unsafe in second rate hands.” The role calls for sudden mechanical, operatic posings. Enver Gjokaj is obviously not a second-rate actor; his quirks (though overdone) are often funny, his timing superb. But he’s made a second-rate vocal choice. He starts way over-the-top loud and stays there. Imagine Forum’s Miles (“I am a parade”) Gloriosus with a bullhorn. The choice gives Gjokaj no place to go and has a wearing effect on the audience. One also wonders what defiant young Louka, as much a realist as Bluntschli, could see in him beyond material advancement.
The production’s sprightly moments are its best. Ernest Sauceda’s “village musician,” not in the script, strolls and plays the violin (wonderfully). But by Act three, he becomes so prominent he threatens to turn Shaw’s early comedy into Fiddler on the Roof.
Sergius’s overkill, the roving minstrel, and other tweaks reveal an urge to entertain at the expense of Shaw’s message. The unadorned scenes between house servants Louka (Sofiya Akilova) and Nicola (Greg Hildreth) feel flat by comparison — in part from semi-assertive performances, and from direction speeding them along. But Louka and Nicola are Shaw’s anti-romantics. When he lets her go, the act of genuine Shavian love out-Bluntschli’s Bluntschli, who declares, “Nicola’s the ablest man I’ve met in Bulgaria.” The production doesn’t make clear why this is so.
Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Directed by Jessica Stone; cast: Sofiya Akilova, Zach Appelman, Enver Gjokaj, Greg Hildreth, Marsha Mason, Jake Millgard, Ernest Sauceda, Wrenn Schmidt, John Conrad Schuck; scenic design, Ralph Funicello; costumes, David Israel Reynoso; lighting, Austin R. Smith; original music and sound design, Mark Bennett
Playing through June 14; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-234-5623