Originally written in 1894, Arms and the Man deals much with the relationship between reality and idealism, familiar favorites for those familiar with some of George Bernard Shaw's other work. The new production of the play at the Jean Cocteau Repertory is uneven, but entertaining and timely nonetheless.
Arms and the Man comes down hard on the subject of hypocrisy, warning fervently of the dangers it represents in both political and personal affairs. Shaw tackles this subject matter with his trademark wit in telling the story of a young Bulgarian woman, Raina (Amanda Jones), whose attitudes about war and romance are shaken by the arrival of a self-professed Serbian army officer in her bedroom one night.
Captain Bluntschli (Jason Crowl) is being pursued by the army of which Raina's father is a top-ranking officer. She keeps him safe during the night and helps him regain his strength by feeding him chocolate, but possibilities of romance get off to a rocky start due to her betrothal to Sergius Saranoff (Mark Rimer), one of her country's most decorated officers. He has given Raina a much different image of war than the one Bluntschli presents, and as her views of the world change, so too do those of her family and servants.
Shaw's writing handles all of this with a fair degree of humor; what starts out looking like a wartime story or political satire has become, by the evening's end, a more complex interweaving story of truth, and how it savages (and salvages) relationships. This production, as directed by Ernest Johns, mostly plays humorously and quite well. The costumes by Robin I. Shane, and Robert J. Martin's sets are attractive, and round out the production nicely.
The play, however, needs a strong Raina at its center, and this Arms and the Man simply does not have one. Jones acts with overly exaggerated vocal and physical mannerisms that suggest opera house (or perhaps high school) acting instead of a realistic portrayal. Her style is so different from everyone else's, she and the rest of the cast frequently appear to be in different plays.
While it's unfortunate that the play's weakest link is in the largest role, the rest of the cast amply pulls up the slack. Carey Van Driest, who plays Louka, is particularly good; she plays Rain's servant with an unmistakable strength and worldly appeal that is believably bewitching for both the audience and the men in the play. Rimer and Harris Berlinsky, who plays Raina's father, both give strong performances, with emphasis on the comedy to be found in their roles. Crowl, as Raina's "chocolate cream soldier" comes into his own more as the play moves along; his work in the first act frequently feels strained.
Though some of the effect of Shaw's fine writing is diluted by Jones's performance, much about Arms and the Man still shines through in this production, a worthy reminder to keep in mind what's truly important in our own difficult times.
Jean Cocteau Repertory