Arms And The Man at the Guthrie Theater

March 25, 2011
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Kate Eifrig, Peter Michael Goetz, Mariko Nakasone and Michael Schantz in Arms And The Man. Photo by Michal Daniel.

In Arms And The Man (on the Guthrie‘s McGuire Stage, through May 8 ) George Bernard Shaw hides deep cynicism in plain sight, behind a veneer of flashy dialogue, sweet romance, giddy farce, lovable preening upperclass characters.  We laugh, get pulled in by high energy antics, we have a wonderful time.  But Shaw, the sly cynic/puppeteer, hovers:  Heroism in war?  Ha.  Romantic love?  Ha.  Shaw will have none of it and those of us who, despite the buffeting of the years, retain a small belief in these things are likely to have a problem with this piece.  There is definite tension in the air.

But good tension.  And Arms And The Man, one of the playwright’s first successes (1894), contains more than enough hijinks to make us forget, for long periods of time, GBS’s nastiness.  The first scene, in which the exhausted Bluntschli bursts into Raina’s boudoir while soldiers search for him, bent on his violent death, is masterful.  In it, Bluntschli and Raina forge a solid connection  which lasts, as we know it will, the entire play.  In the next scene, the war has (conveniently) ended and the defeated Bluntschli returns, ostensibly to return the coat Raina lent him, but in fact to see if he has the ghost of a chance with her.  Which of course, this being Shaw, he does.  Raina’s intended, Sergius, is pompous and ever-horny.  The object of his lust, the flirtatious Louka (a delightfully stock servant character) contends with Nicola, whose love for her is tempered by his calm awareness of his “servitude”.  Raina’s goofy parents, Catherine and Major Petkoff, prowl the fringes.  Fun stuff.

Director Ethan McSweeny ups the “fun” quotient by employing louche and (dare I say?) cheap elements of farce: miniature popping cannons, a bizarre snow-capped set, over-the-top acting turns, a TV-esque “Nicolaaaaa!”.  It took me quite a while to decide whether I liked this.  But I do: the slapstick serves the play nicely and in the hands of the as-always first rate Guthrie cast, it works – with lesser performers it would grate.

The Guthrie has assembled a tall cast for this play: both Michael Schantz (Sergius) and Kate Eifrig (Catherine) are over 6 feet and Jim Lichtscheidl (Bluntschli) and Peter Michael Goetz (Major Petkoff) are not far behind.  Only the two ingenues, Summer Hagen (Louka) and Mariko Nakasone (Raina) seem normal.  Maybe this is accidental, but it works: it forces Hagen and Nakasone into a fiery pitbull-like energy, as they struggle to attract the attention of the lanky and self-absorbed Sergius, et al.  Both Hagen and Nakasone balance their considerable physical beauty with poised power.  At several points in the play Raina asks – demands – that Bluntschli kiss her hand.  It’s electrifying.

What a pleasure to have the great Peter Michael Goetz, with his comic presence and his blow-your-hair-back voice, once again gracing the Guthrie stage.  He very nearly steals the play as the Major.  Eifrig as the mother (utterly believable, the perfect foil for Goetz) entrances with her sweet gooniness.  As does Schantz as Sergius, stroking his ornate 19th century mustache and wooing Louka.  Lichtscheidl plays Bluntschli with passion balanced by calmness.  No mean trick.  J.C. Cutler is excellent as Nicola as is Jason Rojas in the small role of the Russian Officer.

The design is marvelous.  Walt Spangler‘s set bursts with color, fractured walls, enormous paper flowers, angry bulls heads.  The floor and the false proscenium are treated with a peeling unfinished whitewash.  Odd though this seems, it works perfectly.  In particular I adored the second act garden, with the precarious wall, and the mountain goat perched on the snowy (despite the summery season) hillside.  Even more color is provided by Murell Horton‘s excellent costumes, Robert Wierzel‘s lighting and Richard Woodbury‘s sound.  As is so often the case at the G, the designers provide a feast for the eyes.

Do you like Shaw?  If you do, Arms And The Man is the play to see.  Recommended.

For more info about John Olive please visit his (recently updated) website.

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