It’s clear as soon as you enter the theater at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts that Center REPertory Company is taking a fanciful approach to Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 romantic comedy about people with dangerously lighthearted notions of what it means to fight in a war.
New agey Loreena McKennitt songs are playing as the audience takes its seats. Kelly James Tighe’s set is dominated by a huge canopy bed in the shape of a crescent moon, with a moon and stars motif on other furnishings as well, and a purple night sky full of constellations of valentines, arrows and leaves. It looks like we’ve wandered into A Midsummer Night’s Dream by mistake. That feeling is redoubled when we see Victoria Livingston-Hall’s confectionary costumes—brightly colored gowns and military uniforms that might be delightful if they didn’t have stars, moons and hearts conspicuously sewn on them like wizard’s robes. Lyle Barrere’s sound design engagingly incorporates Balkan-tinged pop. (Weirdly, this is the second play I’ve seen in two weeks that’s used the music of Balkan Beat Box.)
The play takes place during the very real (if remarkably short) Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885. A fugitive Swiss soldier of the Serbian army crawls through the bedroom window of the daughter of a wealthy Bulgarian family. Although her father and fiancé are both officers in the Bulgarian army, she feels sympathy for the stranger and hides him when soldiers come looking for him. All this occurs right after the girl, Raina Petkoff, has just been gushing with her mother over the heroism of her betrothed, Major Sergius Sarnoff, who’s just led a victorious cavalry charge on the Serbian forces. Though terrified, ragged and sleep-deprived, this fugitive reveals himself to be a far more skilled and savvy soldier than Sergius, who only survived his rash act of showy heroism because the opposing army had received the wrong ammunition.
With sprightly direction by Nancy Carlin, who’s performed in several Shaw productions at ACT and Cal Shakes, it takes a while for this production to find its feet comically. Some of the zaniness of the first act is perplexing, especially Craig Marker’s loopy overtiredness as the fugitive soldier. Maggie Mason has marvelous energy and comic timing as Raina, an overdramatic flibbertigibbet who’s much smarter than the role she’s accustomed to playing, though she speaks too quickly.
The goofy tone makes more sense once the war is over and the troops come home. It turns out that Raina and Sergius only interact with each other in dramatic proclamations of love while striking over-the-top poses. Mason is hilarious in these scenes with Raina’s furtive glances around to see if people are buying her act. Gabriel Marin’s strutting Sergius matches her in operatic ardor, with rueful knowledge of his own humbuggery, and his glorious mustache deserves its own website. Michael Ray Wisely is priceless as Raina’s father, Major Petkoff, a hapless but good-natured buffoon exemplifying the uselessness of the aristocracy, especially one that’s merely playing at being refined without knowing quite how it’s done. (They keep gloating about having the only library in Bulgaria.)
Now cleaned-up, well-rested and immaculately dressed, Marker’s aptly named Captain Bluntschli shines here as a practical-minded foil for the others’ flighty nonsense, much more at home at an ironic distance from the silliness than succumbing to it. Kendra Oberhauser’s rebellious maid Louka is amusing in her flirtations with real-life partner Marin’s hypocritical Sergius, but her scenes drag with Aaron Murphy’s blandly complacent servant Nicola. Lisa Anne Porter is engagingly discombobulated as Raina’s mother, trying to keep the household’s wartime harboring of erstwhile enemy Bluntschli under wraps from the menfolk. Andy Ryan Gardner has a charming walk-on as a Russian officer.
On the whole, the second act (technically the third, but in any case the part after intermission) is delightful. Even the set is more impressive; the library is indeed something to be proud of, even if it doesn’t actually involve many books.
While the overstated humor of the production is a lot of fun and builds nicely after finding its balance with Shaw’s dry wit, the author’s incisive points about class mobility and the monstrous folly of romanticizing the degrading horror of war sometimes get lost among the high jinks. Though Bluntschli’s rationality may win the day in the play, this production casts its lot wholly with the foolish romantics.
Show #12 of 2012, attended January 31.