Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Steve Graue.
George Bernard Shaw is a name mentioned in the same breath with Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett as the greatest Irish playwrights of all time. His Pygmalion, and its musical theatre adaptation My Fair Lady, are each classics of their genres. But his funniest play just may be the one he wrote making fun of warfare and human foibles, Arms and the Man. George Orwell, writing fifty years after the play premiered, called it both “the wittiest play he ever wrote” and “the most telling.” City Lit Theatre’s new production of this play, their first of anything by Shaw, highlights the playwright’s droll sense of humor, crisp characterizations and satirical flourishes with winning performances and strong direction by Brian Pastor.
The play takes place during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War. We meet its heroine, Raina Petkoff (Scottie Caldwell) as she has just learned from her mother (Eleanor Katz), that her fiancé Sergius Saranoff (Martin Diaz-Valdez) has just led a victorious cavalry charge and that stray Serbian soldiers are heading toward the town. Raina, who idolizes Sergius and the romantic fantasy of what war is, can’t wait for him to return. However, a Swiss captain fighting for Serbia, Bluntschli (Adam Benjamin) takes refuge in her room from Bulgarian forces out to kill him. She offers to hide him, and everything in her life is quickly upended.
Bluntschli makes quick work of her infatuation with the glory of war, telling her that, as a “professional soldier,” his most important job is staying alive, but that so many inexperienced young soldiers enlist for the glory that horrific battles happen often. He then paints a less than flattering picture of Sergius without knowing that the man is betrothed to his benefactor: far from the dashing and brave figure she believes in, he foolishly led his troops into what should have been an ambush by machine guns. The only reason it wasn’t was that the Serbs had brought the wrong ammunition.
Raina is appalled by what she sees as lies, but her blind faith in Sergius is shattered, and when he returns home later she begins to recognize him for what he is: a doofus with a handsome face who would “make love” (in the quaint usage of the term that means flirtation) to her servant Louka (Chelsee Carter). That Louka is engaged to another servant (Linsey Falls) is unknown to Sergius and immaterial to the girl, who believes him to be a ticket out of the serving class. When Raina’s father (Adam Bittermann) returns early with news that the war is over, Bluntschli dares another visit to the Petkoff house, allegedly to return a coat Raina let him borrow but in truth to get another chance to look at her. The woman he finds there is still infatuated by the man she has nicknamed her “chocolate cream soldier,” and the farce is set up.
Pastor is clearly aware that at this play’s heart lies a dichotomy: it is a romantic tale (that its author dubbed “an anti-romantic comedy”) and also a scathing satire of warfare and the weaknesses of the human mind. His pacing rises and falls depending upon what is happening onstage. He gives free reign to the wonderfully overdone characterizations of Bittermann, Diaz-Valdez, and Falls (playing fairly insipid characters broadly and cartoonishly) while reigning in the performances of the other actors, who are portrayed somewhat more realistically. Katz is superb as Raina’s harried mother, while Caldwell brings just the right touch of entitled princess to her role that she can be unexpectedly sidetracked by fate.
As for Benjamin, his Bluntschli is easily the most realistic character in the play, and he plays his role beautifully whether he is bluntly tearing down Raina’s romantic fantasy or efficiently assisting her father and fiancé with troop movements. His character’s pacing and demeanor contrast sharply to everyone else in the play (except perhaps for the caustic Louka) because he represents the intrusion of reality upon their delusions. He also sees right through Raina’s pretended romantic airs to the real woman beneath, something no one else in the play is capable of doing.
With set design by Ray Toler, lighting by Eric Watkins, properties design by Jeremiah Barr, and costumes by Tom Kieffer, Pastor has a solid team behind him, but it is really a show to let actors have a good time. Whether it is Bittermann’s over the top, effete Major Petkoff or Katz’s brilliant expressions and more grounded Catherine, the play is full of memorable performances. A century and a quarter after its opening, Shaw’s play holds up well. The absurdity of war and the insincerity of human nature never go out of style.
Arms and the Man is a City Lit Theatre production now playing at the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago until Oct 21. Performance times vary; check the website at City Lit Theatre for tickets, schedule and times. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.