Monday, September 15, 2014

The Shaw’s Early Shaw: Arms and the Man & The Philanderer

Kate Besworth and Martin Happer star in the Shaw Festival’s production of Arms and the Man (Photo: Emily Cooper)

In George Bernard Shaw’s early comedy Arms and the Man, Bulgaria is at war with Serbia, and the heroine, Raina, the daughter of one major and the fiancée of another, glories in the excitement of the conflict and the swashbuckling self-presentation of the latter, a handsome warrior named Sergius who marches into the fray like a character out of a Walter Scott novel. But on the last night of battle, a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs, Captain Bluntschli, slips into her boudoir to escape from the Bulgarians, and she doesn’t have the heart to give him away. She even feeds him – chocolate creams, his favorite. (She nicknames him her “chocolate cream soldier”; hence the title of the Oscar Strauss operetta version of the material, The Chocolate Soldier.) Bluntschli’s conduct offends her notions of how soldiers should comport themselves, but he and not Sergius is a professional soldier; he finds Sergius’s heroics ridiculous (not to say dangerous). But while Bluntschli undercuts Raina’s schoolgirl notions, he also wins her heart; Shaw’s play may burlesque the romantic temperament, but it’s a romantic comedy and one of his most lighthearted works. It’s also, not surprisingly, one of his most frequently produced plays.

The Shaw Festival’s production – their sixth mounting of the play (the last was only seven years ago), directed by Morris Panych – is rather indifferent. It has one of those visually striking, high-concept Ken MacDonald sets that doesn’t really have much to do with the text: the stage looks like the inside of a cuckoo clock, I assume because he and Panych think that the characters behave like cuckoos, and perhaps that idea explains why several of the actors – Kate Besworth as Raina, Norman Browning as her father, and Peter Krantz as the fastidious head servant, Nicola – overact so strenuously. As it happens, Browning and Krantz both have a habit of chewing the scenery, especially Browning, whose performance is indistinguishable from half a dozen others I’ve seen him give in other Shaw shows. Besworth struts around as if she were playing Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, and two actors whose work I generally admire, Martin Happer and Claire Jullien, are both miscast (as Sergius and the tart-tongued maid Louka respectively). Still, Arms and the Man is worth seeing for Graeme Somerville, who plays Bluntschli – in the first act as a frazzled sad sack, in the second and third as a bashful would-be lover with a modest wit. Somerville’s superb technique and his understated style, always a champion combination, are most appreciated in this context, where everyone around him seems to be trying way too hard.

Moya O'Connell (left), Gord Rand and Marla MacLean in The Philanderer (Photo: David Cooper)

In his days as a drama critic, Shaw wrote enthusiastically about Ibsen, and two of his three first plays, Widowers’ Houses and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, show the unmistakable signs of his influence. The comedy he wrote in between, The Philanderer, is partly a send-up of Ibsen: the protagonist, Leonard Charteris, is described as “an Ibsenist philosopher,” and act two takes place in the library of the Ibsen Club, which admits women but expects them to behave in an “unwomanly” fashion: to wear slacks, smoke cigars and so forth. In the Shaw Festival production, directed by Lisa Peterson, Gord Rand plays Charteris as a late-nineteenth-century eccentric with an overactive libido, and Rand has both the style and the sexual charm to pull it off. But for the first two acts, The Philanderer is amusing piffle, and Peterson has directed Rand and the two women cast as his lovers, Marla McLean (as Grace Tranfield) and Moya O’Connell (as Julia Craven), to overplay vigorously, and the play almost collapses under all their histrionic energy. It’s more fun to watch Jeff Meadows as Dr. Percival Paramore and those two droll, skillful veterans, Ric Reid and Michael Ball, as older-generation club members, a colonel (who is also Julia’s father) and a theatrical critic.

Everything changes when the audience returns after intermission. Shaw discarded his original third act, which has survived only in his notebooks, and Peterson has substituted it for the version published in Plays Unpleasant, the collection of his first trio of plays. The last act usually performed winds up with Paramore prepared to wed Julia; Shaw’s original skips over the machinations that lead to that match, takes them as a given (we can see where the plot is heading by the end of act two), and advances four years, at which point the marriage has fallen apart. The tone is melancholy, even bitter, and the play is deeper and more contemplative. Friends told me they almost left during intermission and were happy they’d stayed; I never thought of walking out, but the old-new final act certainly curbed my restlessness and caught my imagination. Sue LePage and Kevin LaMotte, the designers, do their finest work here, where the unhappy couple and their friends philosophize under a crescent moon in a velvety blue sky. The actors, especially Meadows, rise to the occasion.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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