Up in Arms

In Shaw's genre-busting play of ideas, the world rights itself just in time

When everything goes right, a play in the Berkeley hills put on by the California Shakespeare Festival might be one of the most shimmeringly pleasurable things to watch in the Bay Area. The competition isn't fair, since no other outfit has the benefit of the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, and part of what has to go right with Cal Shakes is the weather -- but still. A comedy like The Taming of the Shrew (three years ago) or Chekhov's The Seagull (last year) or this month's Arms and the Man, viewed on a warm night under the stars, can put you in a good mood for days.

George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man in 1894, during those optimistic years before 1914 when the average European still thought of war as noble, dashing, and grand. His title comes from the first line of John Dryden's translation of the Aeneid, "Arms and the man I sing," which had as much influence on romantic notions of battle during the late 1800s as Fox News has today. Bulgarians in particular were known as valiant underdogs: After breaking free of the Ottoman Empire, the young country of Bulgaria was invaded by its bully neighbor, Serbia, in 1885. The outgunned Bulgarians had enough pluck to beat back the Serbs, and for a while they were the toast of Europe.

Shaw dumped water on this party with Arms and the Man. It was his fourth script, but his first serious production, and even people who admired war had to admit it was funny. Raina Petkoff, Shaw's swooning romantic heroine, is the grown daughter of a rich Bulgarian family. The first scene has her preparing for bed in an ecstasy of happiness after hearing news of her fiance's splendid courage in a cavalry charge against the Serbs. "It proves that all our ideas were real after all," she says to her mother. "... Our patriotism. Our heroic ideals."

We Love a Man in Uniform: The coarse 
Serb Bluntschli (Anthony Fusco) woos the 
genteel Bulgarian Raina (Stacy Ross).
Ken Friedman
We Love a Man in Uniform: The coarse Serb Bluntschli (Anthony Fusco) woos the genteel Bulgarian Raina (Stacy Ross).

Details

Produced by the California Shakespeare Festival

Through July 27

Tickets are $25-49

(510) 548-9666

www.calshakes.org

Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Boulevard off Highway 24, Orinda

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Her mother leaves; a firefight starts in the street outside, and an enemy soldier climbs up to Raina's balcony, fleeing Bulgarians. His name is Bluntschli. He threatens Raina with a pistol and asks her to keep him safe. Bluntschli's coarse manners, dirty clothes, and taste for chocolate creams all offend Raina's standard of a dignified, courageous soldier, but she hides him anyway, and he gives a firsthand account of the Bulgarians' big cavalry charge. He remembers Raina's fiance, too, as a first-class fool, rushing headlong into a machine-gun battery that would have killed him if the Serbs hadn't run out of ammunition. "He did it like an operatic tenor," says Bluntschli. "A regular handsome fellow, with flashing eyes and lovely mustache, shouting his war cry and charging like Don Quixote at the windmills. We did laugh."

The rest of the play is straight situation-comedy, as the war ends and Raina's fiance comes home. The doubts Bluntschli plants in her mind upset the household's Victorian calm, and soon Raina finds herself in love with her "chocolate-cream soldier" because of his satirical bluntness and lack of gentlemanly decorum. "Do you know," she tells him, "you are the first man I ever met who did not take me seriously?"

Bluntschli answers, "You mean, don't you, that I am the first man that has ever taken you quite seriously?"

The play is a bright blast of good sense when it's done well, and Lillian Groag has directed a hugely talented cast. Stacy Ross plays Raina as a spoiled, regal, temperamental girl, fierce and correct and insistent on all her illusions. Anthony Fusco is an even-keeled and therefore hilarious Capt. Bluntschli; Dan Hiatt is a ridiculously pompous (and mustachioed) Sergius, the hero-fiance. Triney Sandoval and Delia MacDougall do good supporting work in an unidentified accent as Nicola and Louka, respectively -- Bulgarian servants, sounding oddly Irish, tangled in the household's romantic subplot. Sandoval doubles as a Russian soldier in one outstanding cameo, and Brian Keith Russell is compelling as usual as Maj. Petkoff, Raina's barrel-chested military father. If Domenique Lozano, as Raina's mother Catherine, seems a little overwrought, it's only because she acts like she's in a Victorian farce, which Arms and the Man essentially is. (The other actors are more restrained.)

Groag paces the show with a light but steady hand, framing each act with cheerful waltzes by Strauss. To keep us from missing Shaw's theme, designer Alexander Nichols has decorated the stage with two enormous figures that might be straight from a trashy King Arthur novel -- young knight kneels before maiden with sword -- to represent Raina's inner world. When Raina opens the French doors to her balcony in the first scene, fairy lights come on in the trees behind the amphitheater stage, winking like stars.

Arms and the Man is a genre-busting play of ideas, a romantic farce that skewers romance (in "politics and morals," Shaw wrote, not just in love). The irony is that Shaw himself was a hopeless romantic, in politics and everything else: The grand old socialist lived long enough to praise Stalin's Russia and then correct his opinion. But he left behind plays about reason trumping fuzzy-mindedness and frivolity, essentially optimistic plays wherein the world rights itself before it goes horribly wrong, which may be exactly the kind of romance we need right now.

 
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