Seattle Shakespeare’s second production of the year, Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, is a charming success. The production is directed by David Armstrong at the intimate Center Theater, which was was packed-full, of both bodies and laughs, this Saturday.
While very much a play of its time, the story of Raina Petcoff (Brenda Joyner), a rich young Bulgarian woman engaged to the ostensibly dashing Sergius Saranoff (Richard Sloniker), is still delightful to behold. Despite the fact that romantic notions of war mostly died out after the bloody tragedies of the First World War, this satire is still as cutting as ever. Captain Bluntschli (S.F. Kamara), a practical Swiss mercenary hired by the Serbs to fight against the Bulgarians in 1885, sneaks into Raina’s room as his army flees after a cavalry charge led by Sergius manages to succeed against all odds, due to a technical problem with the Serbian machine guns. Raina, full of grand ideas about the heroism of her fiance, is shocked by Bluntschli’s jaded views of conflict, but despite her initial fear of him, is charmed by the Swiss soldier and, with the help of her mother, smuggles him out safely in her father’s old overcoat. Joyner does a fantastic job of playing a fundamentally unlikeable character and still coming across as charming, and while she always ends up as the butt of the joke, it is Kamara’s excellent delivery and perpetually amused irony that brings the humour out of their interactions.
Of course the perfect crime is unraveled when Bluntschli returns four months later after the end of the conflict to return the coat, only to come face to face with its owner. Meanwhile the ridiculous “high romance” of Raina and Sergius begins to unravel as Raina’s admiration of Bluntschli grows and her rebellious maid Louka (played by the hilarious Jonelle Jordan), becomes the object of Sergius’s affections. While the plot is predictable and outdated, every line is delivered perfectly against the stunning backdrop of Bulgarian mountains (set design by Julia Hays Welch). An understanding of European stereotypes might add to the jokes (particularly the recurring mentions of Bluntschli’s punctuality), but for the most part the irony is relatively universal. Suzy Hunt’s portrayal of Raina’s mother, Catherine Petcoff, is particularly brilliant, unlike most of the characters, she gets to switch back and forth from being the subject of one liners to delivering them, and manages both with aplomb while her physical humour is matched only by Jordan’s cuttingly-annoyed facial expressions.
Anyone who enjoys a quality comedic production should make sure to get seats.
Arms and the Man, by Bernard Shaw, directed by David Armstrong. Center Theatre. 305 Harrison St, Seattle, WA 98109 through November 18. Tickets and More Info here.