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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Arms and the Man

You think of things that would never come into a gentleman's mind — Raina
  That's the Swiss natural character — Bluntschli

Arms and the Man Nisi Sturgis as Raina
(Photo: Joe Geinert)
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has let George Bernard Shaw tell it like it is: that war may be hellish, but often so many of its idiotic, misguided proponents make it seem sadly hilarious. Set in the late 19th century during the time of the Serbo-Bulgarian war, Arms and the Man written in 1894, is a double-edged sword. The sparkling production under the direction of Joe Discher is primarily rewarded with the incomparably triple-edged performances of Nisi Sturgis, as Raina, the heroine, Sean Mahan as Bluntschli, the "chocolate cream" hero; and Anthony Marble as Raina's fiancé.

While cleverly penned to discredit the myths about war and its warriors, George Bernard Shaw's fourth play but first success also rebukes social protocol and romantic insincerity. In this, his most lilting, lyrical anti-militaristic farce, romance comes first, closely pursued by comedy. But in an ironic way, we also watch the giddy old-fashioned action from a perspective colored by our knowledge of current events.

  I was instantly delighted by the bubbly charm that presides in a maiden's bedchamber, namely Sturgis, as Raina, the daughter of the richest and most prominent family in Bulgaria. The very pretty Sturgis, who is returning to the Shakespeare Theatre two years after her memorable Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, is a constant breeze of impudent freshness through all of the play's purposeful nonsense. Her conscripted flakiness also had me laughing aloud at almost every one of her delightfully turned phrases and glances.

  It takes expert direction such as we get with Discher, especially in the first half of the Act I, not to allow the cast to overstate the comical business as if they were performing in Oscar Straus's operetta version The Chocolate Soldier. Unlike the many varieties of chocolate creams in a five pound box, everyone in the company appears equally favored and flavored by Discher's gently facetious approach.

  This unity of style in no way compromises Shaw's comical inquiry into the various and variable ethics that dictate man's behavior. (Some productions make a case for having a pronounced disparity in acting styles). Don't think, for a minute that you will be lulled by mere consistency of style. Nothing gets in the way of seeing the play's characters sustain the grand illusion of their own half-mad delusions.

  At times, Mahan's performance seems deceptively off-handed as the sweet-toothed Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschli. But I was soon won over by his otherwise disarming manner. It is for Bluntschli, a notably un-dashing but endearingly unpretentious professional soldier who would rather have chocolates than bullets in his pockets, to put to rest the myths of war and its heroes. Bluntschli's bedside brand of cynical insecurity puts to rest any number of cliches about heroic behavior. When the hungry, tired and frightened fugitive takes temporary refuge from pursuing soldiers in a maiden's boudoir, he uses the only ammunition he has left "Would you like to see me cry?"

  The airs of narcissism and phony gallantries that personify Major Sergius Saranoff are kept nicely in check by Anthony Marble. As Raina's fiancé "the hero of the hour, the idol of the regiment," Marble's display of not too subtly contained stupidity and posturing, is highlighted by being a klutz and repeatedly knocking over potted plants. One can see that he is, nevertheless, enamored by his own countenance and how smart he looks in his blue and gold uniform. That is until he finally opens his mouth and declares, "Everything I think is mocked by everything I do. " Yet somehow Marble also makes Sergius's tentative bravado an appealing trait.

  Bill Christ was appropriately clueless as the old Major. Helen Farmer made the most of her aggressively flirtatious moments, as Louka, the cunningly sensual maid. Also on the satirical mark are Ames Adamson, as Nicola, the man servant and Anne Marie Cusson, as Raina's mother Catherine, bent on modernizing her home with an electric servant's bell. One of the nicest things about Discher's staging is seeing the three handsome settings by designer Charlie Calvert — the bedchamber, the garden and the library of the Petkoff home in Bulgaria — revolve into view with the finesse that also graces the acting. Emily Pepper's lovely costumes comply with the time, place and era.

  The title of the show was taken from the first line of Virgil's Aeneid which reads in Latin, "Arma virum que cano" and translates as "Of arms and the man I sing." In The Aeneid, Virgil praises the glory of military work; thus Shaw's title is slightly tongue-in-cheek since his comedy debunks military glory.

  A bit of theatre history: As I was writing this review, my wife reminded me of a production we saw together at the Circle in the Square in 1985. A missed lighting cue at the beginning of a scene in Act II found the actors standing on stage in total darkness. Raul Julia who was playing Sergius and Kevin Kline who was playing Bluntschli began to whistle the entr'acte music much to the delight of the audience. I don't remember how long they entertained us as we remained in darkness, but with those two extraordinary actors on stage, no one seemed to care.

  Editor's Note: For more about George Bernard Shaw and links to other plays of his reviewed at Curtainup, see our Shaw Backgrounder.

Arms and the Man
  By George Bernard Shaw
  Directed by Joe Discher

  Cast: Nisi Sturgis (Raina), Anne-Marie Cusson (Catherine), Helen Farmer (Louka), Sean Mahan (Bluntschli), Jason Edward Bobb (a Russian soldier), Ames Adamson (Nicola), Bill Christ (Paul), Anthony Marble (Sergius). Set Designer: Charlie Calvert
  Costume Designer: Emily Pepper
  Lighting Designer: Matthew Adelson
  Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
  Main Stage: F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ   (973) 408 – 5600
  Tickets ($31.00 - $54.00)
  Performances: Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 PM, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 8 PM. Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 PM.
  Previews began 07/07/10
  Opened: 07/10/10
  Ends: 08/01/10
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 07/11/10
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