Can a satirical anti-romantic comedy written over 100 years ago—and not by a man named Shakespeare—have anything to say to us today? It can if the play is Arms and the Man, and the playwright the acerbic Nobel Laureate George Bernard Shaw. Jewel Theatre has made this daring choice for its highly entertaining season opener.
Few theater-goers aren’t familiar with the wicked wit of Shaw, the man whose Pygmalion gave us My Fair Lady. Nothing and no one is safe from his juicy pen—love, war, men, women, the military, the bourgeoisie, even the Swiss.
The jewelbox production is beautifully mounted on a shallow stage which moves the action, the crisp dialogue, and the gorgeous costuming close to the audience.
Set in the late 19th century during a war raging between Serbia and Bulgaria, Shaw’s satire about the glorification of love and war begins in the bedroom of Raina Petroff (Elinor Gunn), daughter of a wealthy Bulgarian family. Raina is engaged to marry a military officer involved in what they all believe is a heroic battle against the enemy. All the pomp, pretense and disastrous ideology of soldiering are ripe for skewering by Shaw’s brisk lines, which retain surprising energy in the hands of director Nike Doukas’ skillful cast.
Raina and her mother Catherine (Marcia Pizzo) are delirious with joy over news from the front, sent by the father of the house, that Raina’s fiance, Sergius, has led a great victory. He is the “hero of the hour, the idol of the regiment.” The play opens in Raina’s luxurious bedroom—beautifully captured by Se Hyun Oh’s scenic design and Wen Ling Liao’s lighting—where Raina has just climbed into bed when an intruder suddenly bursts into the bedroom through an unlocked window. A battleweary Serb soldier (actually a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs) needs a place to hide while he rests. In the ensuing wordplay, Raina extolls the virtues of her gallant Sergius, while the intruder (Charles Pasternak in full Errol Flynn mode) tells quite a different story, revealing that the Serbs “triumphed” only by luck, since their Bulgarian opponents had no ammunition.
Seeing how tired and hungry he is, Raina gives the starving soldier some of her chocolate creams, and when he has to be hustled out of the house to avoid capture, the romantic girl puts her photograph with the inscription “to my chocolate cream soldier” into the pocket of his jacket.
Thanks to the Jewel’s crisp production, the play’s subtext emerges nicely—the tension between women’s intelligent perceptions and the cooing, subservient roles they adopt in order to maintain their position in society. This tension plays out in the next scenes with the maid Louka (Allie Pratt), who knows her own worth even though she’s a peasant, and Raina’s realization about the privileged role she’s played all her life. “Perhaps we only had our heroic ideas because we are so fond of reading Byron and Pushkin,” Shaw has her admit.
The pace picks up when the men, father Petkoff (Bo Foxworth), and the magnificently costumed toy soldier Sergius (Kyle T. Hester) arrive home from the battlefield. A blissful Raina basks in the glow of her sweetheart’s uniform, his handsome looks, his peacock attitude. The comedy gets richer as Shaw unleashes delicious jokes about pretentious Bulgarians and their hygiene. Civilized versus barbarian behavior is raked over the Shavian coals—and given the current Ukraine situation, the dialogue still hits its target. During the second half of the play, Louka, the pert serving girl, and Nicola (Andrew Davids), the wise servant who knows his place, become Shaw’s mouthpieces for the working class, who see through the posturing dramatics of their social superiors. Some of Shaw’s political messaging about the dignity of workers gets muddled in the rapid-fire exchanges between Pratt and Hester, but in the end, all the points are clearly made.
Arms and the Man looks fantastic, with outstanding period details from furniture to gowns (kudos to B. Modern). And the adroit cast keeps the witty repartee moving, with special praise for Hester as the hysterically pompous Major Sergius, Marcia Pizzo and Bo Foxworth as the fussy, nouveau riche Petkoffs and most resoundingly to “chocolate cream soldier” Charles Pasternak, who walks off with the last fifteen minutes of the production.
The Jewel Theatre season opener is ripping good entertainment, loaded with wit and blustery character epiphanies. You know exactly what will happen, and you’ll enjoy it all the same.‘Arms and the Man’ by George Bernard Shaw, a Jewel Theatre production, will be performed at the Colligan Theater on the Tannery campus, 1010 River St. in Santa Cruz, through Oct. 2. jeweltheatre.net.