Any play that draws inspiration from Virgil’s Aeneid perks my ears up. One of GB Shaw’s early commercial “hits”, Arms and the Man, first produced in 1891, plucks its title from the opening lines of The Aeneid (Arma virumque cano: literally, I sing of arms and the man, meaning “I sing of the deeds of war and Aeneas”). The play is a scathing social commentary, satirizing the folly of war and idealized romance in an age of encroaching mechanization, class division breakdown and crass opportunism. Surely Shaw would be pleased with the merits of Stage West’s current comedic production of the farcical work.
Directed by Stage West’s Artistic Director Jim Covault with wry restraint, it feels like a long form prototype of a “Polack joke”, where the Bulgarians become the uncouth joke butts and an enterprising, working class Swiss mercenary with a sweet tooth calls the entire charade to account.
Foreshadowing in uncanny ways the cult film successes “King of Hearts” (1966, starring Alan Bates) and Robert Altman’s 1970 Oscar and Golden Globe winning “M*A*S*H” (based on Richard Hooker’s novel), the play’s three acts skewer along with witty repartee, faux danger, intimations of torrid titillation and a predictable and utterly satisfying cheesy denouement. All the while, Shaw’s serious points about the false glorification of war and romantic infatuation linger just below the surface, offering contemplative substance after giddy aperitif.
“Oh, to think that it was all true…that the world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory and men who can act its romance!” Raina
Covault assembled a strong cast for the Stage West production, each actor equally adept at negotiating the complex comic text and creating believable, endearing characters out of stylized stereotypes. Mark Shum as Bluntschli wins the audience over in the opening moments with his pitiful neediness and unsoldierly fondness for chocolates then keeps them enraptured as his true opportunistic nature reveals itself.
Cassie Bann’s simpering, but scheming, ingénue Raina feels like a classic Jane Austen character with a quaint twist, and bats her eyes with the calculating, demure charm of a black widow spider. As her betrothed Sergius, Samuel West Swanson, tall, dark and dashingly handsome, buckles (and unbuckles) his swash with itinerant, amoral and slightly dense abandon. He not only gets what he wants, but what he deserves. As the scheming servants defiant Louka and obsequious Nicola, Morgan McClure and Dwight Greene must make Swedish playwright August Strindberg, Shaw’s contemporary, spin in his grave and gnash teeth at their delicious antithesis in character portrayal to his dark class struggle masterpiece Miss Julie. Playing pretentious Bulgarian “aristocrats”, the bumbling Major Petkoff and his devious wife Catherine, Jerry Russell and Emily Scott Banks balance each other’s comic mastery with easy grace, maximizing the satire and delighting the audience. Their glowing pride in their “liberry” would make a Texas-based US president swell his chest. Michael Robinson’s period costumes compliment each character with rhetorical flair and add a stunning visual to view en ensemble. Sally forth on yon silver steed, sabers drawn; laugh your bloody spats off.
“’Cause suicide is painless
it brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.
…and you can do the same thing if you choose.”
Arms and the Man runs through November 27 at Stage West in Fort Worth. http://stagewest.org 817-784-9378
M*A*S*H song lyrics: http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/televisiontvthemelyrics-50s60s70s/mash.htm
Photos: Buddy Myers
Thank you, GB Shaw, for reminding us peace is NEVER out of fashion.