With its sumptuous 19th-century costumes (designed by David Israel Reynoso) and applause-eliciting sets (scenic design by Ralph Funicello), the Old Globe’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man has pizzazz to spare. More important, it is very much true to Shaw’s intended de-glamorization of both war and swooning love. Neither the “glory” of battle nor the rapture of romance emerges unscathed at the end of three swiftly moving acts of dramatic satire couched as broad comedy.
Shaw subtitled his play first produced in 1894 “An Anti-Romantic Comedy in Three Acts,” and the tale of a beautiful aristocrat, Raina Petkoff, engaged to a fop of a war hero, Sergius, who finds true love with the arrival of an enemy soldier, is more romp than romance. Its physicality is not spent on embraces so much as on posing, posturing and gestures both noble and ignoble. As for the nobility of battle, if there is such a thing, Shaw’s narrative wrapped around the four-month-long Serbo-Bulgarian War in 1885 is unromantic as can be about all things military. The preposterous Sergius and Raina’s blustering father, Major Petkoff, are played purely for laughs. Capt. Bluntschli, Raina’s “chocolate-cream soldier,” has a head on his shoulders but is not in love with military bearing or valor.
All this clear and deliberate commentary aside, this staging of Arms and the Man directed by Jessica Stone is sheer entertainment. Besides the lush set and costumes, the production enjoys light-comedy turns by Wrenn Schmidt and Zach Appelman as Raina and Bluntschli respectively, and by familiar pro’s Marsha Mason and Conrad John Schuck as Raina’s parents. Enver Gjokaj is given license to go all out as the vainglorious Sergius, and does so. The Monty Pythons would be proud. There’s even a likable fiddler (Ernest Sauceda) who engages theatergoers in crowd participation.
At times the silliness smothers the play’s underlying discourses – apparently Shaw himself was surprised audiences laughed so much. But there are illuminations in Bluntschli’s hapless swordplay and Sergius’ cluelessness, and in fanciful Raina’s superficiality, illuminations that are not confined to the 19th century.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat