George Bernard Shaw once complained to a critic about the poorly timed laughter and applause of theater audiences. He resented that the witty dramatizations of his progressive political ideals were interrupted by what he referred to as "incontinent hee-hawings." Good thing Shaw never saw the age of cell phones and pagers.
Whether or not the timing of the laughter would be to Shaw's liking, there's no shortage of hee-hawing to be heard during Great Lakes Theater Festival's Arms and the Man, one of the playwright's earliest and most popular plays, and the debut production for new Great Lakes Artistic Director Charles Fee.
Stylishly presented with visual grace and dynamism -- and enough broad slapstick for a Marx brothers movie -- the play scores as a sophisticated entertainment much more so than as a timely meditation on misplaced patriotism and the illusory romance of battle. In fact, you can probably skip the paragraph in the program that chronicles the Serbo-Bulgarian War, the story's backdrop. A shameless anti-historian, Shaw wrote the play first and figured out an appropriate setting later; all that mattered to him was that it be set during a war modern enough to allow for a machine-gun wisecrack in Act 3.
The story centers on wide-eyed young noblewoman Raina Petkoff, who's pretty and innocent and worshipful of her soldier fiancé, Sergius. But while Sergius is away fighting, Raina encounters a warrior from the other side, a coldly pragmatic professional soldier of Swiss heritage with a weakness for chocolate cremes. Captain Bluntschli, a.k.a. "The Chocolate Soldier," boasts a combination of dash and vulnerability that captures the girl's romantic imagination and begins the process of shattering it, making space instead for a more adult-minded self-awareness and realism.
In Act 2, the play's sharp secondary theme is introduced in the form of the servant class. Louka, played well by Laura Perotta, is a willful embodiment of Shaw's interest in social equity and women's rights. Secretly betrothed to fellow domestic Nicola, Louka is of higher mind and so destined for greater things. In the end, each character's shallow desires have been transmuted into something more profound. Raina and Sergius grow past their naive romantic beliefs, and even the Chocolate Soldier must bow to the greater force of love.
Shaw's great comic characters are all well-cast by Fee, but the plum in this fruitbowl is Sergius, played with wild-eyed relish by David Anthony Smith, who allows for the bare minimum of Shaw's intended "sensitive observation" and "half tragic, half ironic air," instead playing the role for laughs. Sara M. Bruner is excellent as Raina, the character Shaw seems to most openly disdain, and Ashley Smith exudes a placid elegance and world-weary charm as Bluntschli.
Fee has also crafted some prettily choreographed bits of stage business. Take, for example, the elegant foreshadowing within the dramatically staged hand kisses exchanged by the two couples. Fortunately, as with the acting, the clowning never gets in the way of Shaw's larger point, which is less about how war is wrongly glamorized than about the clash between realism and idealism, with a little bit of Pygmalion-style class clash mixed in.