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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Shaw's Arms and the Man: A Total Delight in Shakespeare Theatre New Jersey Production

Nisi Sturgis and Anne-Marie Cusson
Is it possible that an 1894 comedy set during the four month Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885-1886, which centers on the contretemps which arise after Raina Petkoff, a young Bulgarian woman, humanely saves the life of Bluntschli, a mercenary Swiss officer in the Serbian army by allowing him to hide from a pursuing Bulgarian allied Russian officer in her bedroom, could be as contemporary and relevant as today's headlines? Is it possible that such a play might simultaneously be as delightful and buoyant a romp as one could hope to encounter? Not very likely so, I would have thought last week, but then I hadn't seen the Shakespeare Theatre's scintillating production of Bernard Shaw's first successful play, Arms and the Man.

I will not waste your time with a further exploration of the farcical plot which I could only render cloddishly in comparison with the deft Shavian touch with which it is written.

As exceptionally delightful as Arms and the Man is, it is not an easy play to bring off. And, while the entire ensemble is flawless, the elevating centerpiece of the production is the delightfully multi-dimensioned Raina of Nisi Sturgis. So many elements must be precisely calibrated for us to delight in Raina, who in today's parlance would be described as a spoiled suburban princess. To excel as she does, Sturgis must charm us even as we note the vacuity with which her Raina pouts and manipulates. In part, she accomplishes this and more by subtly allowing us to discover within her, glimmers of sensitivity and intelligence even as she conceals such qualities from those about her. Sturgis unerring walks a thin line in order to retain the three-dimensional humanity which Shaw has given Raina while lightly injecting the comic exaggeration which a full flowering of his stylized comedy requires.

Sean Mahan perfectly complements Sturgis as her Swiss, chocolate-loving soldier. Mahan's briskly professional, cool, unfussy and profoundly likeable Bluntschli is an ideal anchor for Shaw's machinations.

One of the pair of major themes of Arms and the Man is the horror, suffering and stupidity of war, as well as its inappropriate glorification. Bill Christ is pompously and amusingly incompetent as Raina's father Paul, a Bulgarian army major. As her mother Catherine who, not having had to serve, foolishly believes that war is a lark, Anne-Marie Cusson stylishly conveys the easy confidence which Catherine derives from her unexamined assumptions.

The other major theme is the damage to one's humanity and to the human spirit caused by a rigidly stratified social order. The servant class is represented by the anything but subservient young maid, Louka, and the opportunistically and totally submissive longtime family retainer, Nicola, who has his cap set for Louka. There is no scruple which will stop her from using every weapon that she can seize upon to avoid subservience and upset the societal class structure. Helen Farmer is a winningly determined and intense Louka. And Shaw, with inestimable help from Farmer, will have you agreeing with her.

However, it is no slam dunk as Shaw gives intelligent voice to the other side of the coin in his sympathetic Nicola. Nicola is saving the additional monies that he makes by kowtowing to open his own retail business. He explains to Louka that if she incurs the wrath or fear of her employers, they will fire her for an invented cause and then no one will hire her. When Louka tells Nicola, "You have the soul of a servant", he responds, "That is the secret of success when you are in service." Surely, Shaw is advocating Louka's point of view. Yet hardly any of today's polemic playwrights grant those with positions which they oppose, the humanity, understanding and cogent arguments that Shaw does. For the most part, in today's political humor, revile and ridicule has replaced wit and intellectual engagement.

New Jersey stage stalwart Ames Adamson conveys the humor of Nicola's servility while lending him an appropriate dignity.

A major strength of director Joe Discher's exemplary production is that it is expansive enough to allow this theme to carry, at the least, equal weight and interest with the anti-war theme.

The role which bridges both themes is that of Raina's fiancé, Sergius, who like her father is a foolish Bulgarian major. Anthony Marble's Sergius performs most of the play's physical humor, and he does so quite ably. Marble nicely tilts to the villainous side of this lightly comic villain role when Sergius attempts to use his social status to force his dalliance with Louka. Superior social class notwithstanding, the foolish Sergius is out maneuvered by Louka at every turn.

The two-sided mobile scenic panels designed by Charlie Calvert produce pretty, airy sets for the three locations within and outside the Petkoff manse. If only there was a door for Raina and (later) Louka to listen in at, all would be right here. The pretty, playable and appropriate costumes are by Emily Pepper.

In its buoyantly airy and deftly humorous exploration of serious matters of timeless and universal concern, Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man is as delightful as it is rare. Joe Discher's superlatively acted production delivers its delightful brilliance in all of its glory.

Arms and the Man continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday, Wednesday & Sun (excluding. 8/1) at 7:30 pm; Thursday, Friday & Saturday 8 pm; Mats.: Saturday & Sunday 2 pm) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online:

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw; directed by Joe Discher

Raina Petkoff.................................Nisi Sturgis
Catherine Petkoff..............Anne-Marie Cusson
Louka.........................................Helen Farmer
Bluntschli.....................................Sean Mahan
Russian Soldier.................Jason Edward Bobb
Nicola......................................Ames Adamson
Paul Petkoff......................................Bill Christ
Sergius Saranoff......................Anthony Marble

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Photo: ©Joe Geinert

- Bob Rendell

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