George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man certainly entertained and amused a great many people for a long time after its 1894 debut. This light romantic comedy, almost a period piece, given its datedness, needs a production full of style to work best. Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre’s Cathy M.W.Kurz and a capable cast earnestly take it on but the script still shows its age.
Many people involved in theatre find appealing the deliberately pointed ideas in the dialogue, dealing with such themes as the absurdity of war, the hypocrisy of the class system, the confusions of young love. By today’s standards, however, these elements seem like tickling pin-pricks. Compared with other more obviously polemic Shaw works, this one relies mostly on charm rather than dramatic, witty, extended and trenchant dialogue.
The charm comes from similarities to other stage comedies: foolish characters, disrupting secrets, assertive servants, a disarming hero, and a happy ending. Always with a suggestion that these people may take themselves seriously but we shouldn’t. Shaw knew what he was doing. No doubt he saw this as a way to push those pins with something more entertaining than complicated.
During the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, Raina Petkoff, a young Bulgarian, is engaged to Sergius Saranoff, one of the presumed heroes of that war. But then Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary in the Serbian army, escapes danger and capture entering Raina’s bedroom when she is alone. Much of the play revolves around such a potentially compromising and shocking encounter. Meanwhile, Sergius also has his eye on Louka, a maid in the Petkoff household. Another servant, a man named Nicola, has equal urgings. Present and accounted for are Raina’s parents, Major Paul and Catherine Petkoff.
This needs a lot of style, neither sending up the creakiness nor taking things too seriously. This looks as if Kurz tries to walk the middle ground, without ever pushing too hard. David Mainelli does it best, making Bluntschli’s matter-of-fact statements of unconventional things appealing and quite amusing. While, by contrast, Jeremy Earl often adroitly captures Sergius’ silly exaggerated self-image. Among the other cast members, Charleen J.B. Willoughby and Brent Spencer as the parents, give good accounts of themselves.
The soldiers’ costumes designed by Wesley Pourier have just the right colorfully exaggerated touch, as if matching GBS’s wry perspective. Whoever chose the entr’ acte music made good choices, such as an excerpt from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije which mocks militarism. Or some of Oscar Straus’ 1908 operetta The Chocolate Soldier derived from the play.
For those who like Shaw lite, consider this a healthy serving of low-fat yogurt, sort of sweet, with a little something to nourish you. It could be your dish.
Arms and The Man continues through Nov. 15 at First Central Congregational Church, 421 S. 36th St. Fri. Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun: 2 p.m. Tickets: $20-$25. bsbtheatre.com