Architect Robert Venturi once said that sometimes, it’s all right for a building to look like a building. Sometimes, it’s a good thing for a play to look like a play. The Seattle Public Theater doesn’t reinvent or re-conceive George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, but rather has turned out a straightforward rendering of the 1894 comedy satirizing romantic war, romantic love, and any other romance Shaw could find.
There are good actors, dead-on comedic timing, and a surprising freshness to the wit, anger, and moral conundrums that Shaw wrote about just before the turn of the 19th Century. It helps that Shaw was and is a towering figure in English literature, albeit not so tall as he once was, and one who wrote so competently and prolifically that for each and every topic that he puts forth — feminism, militarism, romanticism, socialism, classism — you can still feel the presence of his churning and authentic mind. As much as he liked to provoke and even enrage, Arms and the Man was produced in the first flush of his great success, when he still restrained his drive to lecture. What sermonizing there is comes in what is still the best delivery system for inconvenient truths: irony and character.
The production, directed by Seattle Public Theater’s artistic director, Shana Bestock, lets the script and a competent and at times outright beguiling cast do the work. A rich, beautiful Bulgarian young woman, Raina, is betrothed to a dashing cavalry officer, Sergius. She has a sassy, inconveniently pretty servant named Louka, a fierce, pretentious and yet very competent mother, a bumbling father who is the highest-ranking Bulgarian in a Russian-led army, and, to round out the family scene, a middle-aged manservant who looks forward to leaving service to set up a shop in Sofia. The play opens in the midst of a war that is a struggle for control of the Balkans between the Austrian and Russian empires and their surrogates, Serbia and Bulgaria.
Everyone has their role, their place — stock characters in melodrama and farce, from the romantic, dreamy young woman to the self-important officer. Yet starting with first minute of dialogue we know that these roles are hardly stable. The world is in transition.
While the play doesn’t spell it out, the original audience would have been aware that Bulgaria itself is both a stock character — the land of country bumpkins (which Shaw mocks so badly that the Bulgarian government complained about the play for decades) — and one that, recently liberated from the Ottoman Empire, was ready for change, struggling to find its identity, like the human protagonists themselves.
The news from the front is that Sergius, the heroic cavalryman, has led a victorious charge and routed the Serbs. Our heroine, Raina, played with grace and surprises by Anne Kennedy Brady, swoons with enthusiasm, though her conviction is colored by her earlier doubts, as she says that the victory “proves that all our ideals were real after all.” Her mother, in a consistently vivid performance by Julie Jamieson, is indignant at her daughter’s doubts. Yet once mother’s gone, it’s Reality, not Ideals, that will come up the drainpipe and break into bedroom in the form of an escaping artilleryman in a Serbian uniform.
Captain Bluntschli, in a well-pressed performance by Frank Lawler, begins with a threat, but soon turns to argument and humanity, pragmatism and chocolates, in his appeal for her protection. He delivers the news that Sergius’s victory was a fluke, that the great hero should have been slaughtered by Austrian machine guns — except the Austrian-Serb artillery had the wrong ammunition that day. Raina, by turns imperious and petulant, vows that she can no longer protect him, given the insult to her valarous betrothed, and yet, when he falls dead asleep on her bed, she does.
The scenes between the two of them lay the groundwork for the character interactions throughout the play. Raina is at least two characters — one her girl’s vision of her noble character, the other a pragmatic, humane and curious woman — but for the most part she doesn’t let the latter show. Bluntschli (the pun in the name in deliberate, he’s blunt) plays no games, and has no truck with romantic notions of war. It is hard, dirty, cold, dangerous, and no one is a hero. And success has to do with logistics and supplies — having the right ammo — not with charges of the light brigade. He’s the scientific materialist, no illusions about himself or others, while she is in the thrall of fantasy.
In the Second Act, it’s March, four months after the bedroom scene. The war is over, and everyone comes home to Raina’s family home, the Petkoff estate. Everyone still has their set parts — ingenue, dashing swain — yet it becomes clear that at least in the younger generation, the characters will be busting out all over pretty soon.
Sergius is the hero returned, but he’s resigning his commission. He pursues “the higher love” with his devoted Raina, yet the moment her back is turned he tells the maid with the flashing eyes that the higher love is “a very fatiguing thing to keep up for any length of time…one feels the need for some relief after it.” Which for him is flirting or more with Louka. He sees the contradiction: “What would Sergius, the hero of Slivnitza, say if he saw me now? What would Sergius, the apostle of the higher love, say if he saw me now? What would the half dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of this handsome figure of mine say if they caught us here?”
The production works because the actors seem not self-indulgent, but genuinely surprised and charged as they turn from one side of their character to another, trying to figure out who they are. Ryan Childers plays the half-dozen Sergiuses to the hilt; he’s remarkable as the pompous one, believable as the cad, and convincingly bitter as the disillusioned young man. Yet, because this is a comedy, not a tragedy, he will get beyond simply seeing his multiple selves, and come closer to finding himself, at least brushing with reality.
To jump to the Shavian credo in the third act, Captain Bluntschli, after noting that Sergius has at last “found himself out,” will turn to Sergius and ask, “now that you’ve found that life isn’t a farce, but something quite sensible and serious, what further obstacle is there to your happiness?” The farce over, it’s time to move to real life.
Which in this drama, for Shaw, is represented by Switzerland, Bluntschli’s homeland — a Republic, with no romance (putting aside William Tell and the apple), and a realistic focus on commerce and pragmatism. Which way will Bulgaria turn out? Which way will the characters turn out? Bluntschli is, once again, barging into the Petkoff family scene, yet this time on the ground floor is the agent of reality, and maturity, to bring the household into the future.
There’s a mix of very funny lines and moments of true feeling in the scenes that follow. Raina has a hard time giving up her grandiosity and romance, and Brady can an be very funny playing those feelings, yet she’s even better when she acknowledges that her nobility is all for show. Bluntschli is the first person to ever see through her mask, and Brady takes it off very well.
There’s also a complex scene between Louka, young and with no interest in remaining a servant, and Nicola, who has every intention of using his servile skill set even if he does leave the household, because he is expert in how it can work to his advantage. It is a strange scene: skipping a decade to when Shaw wrote Pygmalion (what became My Fair Lady), Nicola is playing a Henry Higgins role, training a young person from one class to rise into another. He’s already started the work, now he accepts that he’s going to have to finish it. The actors, Mark Fullerton and Brenda Joyner, have the technique to make it feel a genuine exchange.
There’s a rush to the finish, when the farcical elements work out, when everyone is revealed for who they are, and when there is, as Bluntschli says, hope that there will be no further “obstacle to happiness.” Bluntschli, an utterly competent new man, unhindered by imperial romance, is jovial, yet ready to startle his listeners with reality. Sergius threatens him with a duel, Bluntschli avers that that’s fine, but he’ll be bringing his machine gun.
In the midst of the still-effective farce of misplaced coats and forgotten photographs there’s another kind of moment of true feeling. Raina is theatrically denouncing a friend of Bluntschli, who she believes is “spreading this horrible story about me” (a story that happens to be true). Bluntschli bluntly notes that it can’t be his friend. “No; he’s dead. Burnt alive…Shot in the hip in a woodyard. Couldn’t drag himself out. Your fellows’ shells set the timber on fire and burnt him, with half a dozen other poor devils in the same predicament.” Raina exclaims “Horrible,” and Sergius declaims, “Oh, war! War! The dream of patriots and heroes! A fraud, Bluntschli. A hollow sham, like love.”
The lines are delivered melodramatically and hilariously by Childers. The British, at the peak of their empire, may have heard the anti-war message more vividly. Not that we romanticize war today.
The Seattle Public Theater puts “building community” at the core of its mission. There’s a humility to its notion of community, in a small theater on the lake in north Seattle, where people can and do bike or walk to the theater, and where outside there’s jogging and sports and inside this summer there’ll be an active summer youth program
Arms and the Man did not come out of modest milieu. Shaw was already well-known as a critic, joining W.B. Yeats, not yet the greatest Irish poet (though soon enough) as a colleague, both of them putting plays on at London’s Avenue Theatre that year. Their fellow Irishman, Oscar Wilde, would mount The Importance of Being Earnest in February 1895, in which one of his ingenues, Gwendolen, would say, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” It was a cultural community of sorts, London in the 1890s, and it was one that saw itself battling on the world stage against the masks of meretricious power
There’s chasm, at least there appears to be, between the determination to the “serious and the sensible” in Shaw — funny as he was, he did think it was important to be earnest — and Wilde’s more destabilizing notion that the serious and sensible may not be possible or desirable. Yet there certainly is, between them and many others, a community of minds determined to get on with the future, rather than remaining trapped in a falsely construed past. It is remarkable, more than a century later, that such a realm of playwrights and thinkers can still speak to us, and even “build community,” when we let them.
If you go: Arms and the Man, through June 12 at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse, 7312 West Green Lake Dr. N., Seattle. Tickets cost $21-$27 and are available at the box office, by phone (206 524-1300), or online.