Romanticizing militarism helps a nation justify conquering other sovereign powers. In the late 19th century, as the British Empire stretched across the globe, Victorian society celebrated the heroic nature of war. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), however, did not. The title of Arms and the Man (1894) comes from the opening line of the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome. While Virgil’s poem lauds martial life, Shaw’s play mocks it. Along the way, Shaw also makes tasty mincemeat of Victorian ideals about love, chivalry and class.
The setting for Arms and the Man is the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885. The anything-but-epic conflict lasted all of two weeks. Satirizing bumbling bumpkins in the Balkans actually gives Shaw much wider latitude to dissect cherished English values. In Waitsfield, the Valley Players’ current production features spirited performances, a lively pace and lovely visual elements. Shaw’s cheeky humor shines in this evening of well-executed community theater.
All three acts of the play take place at the home of the Petkoffs, Bulgaria’s “richest and best known” family. Their house has windows, stairs and — gasp! — the country’s only library. The story opens with the menfolk away at war: Papa Petkoff and daughter Raina’s fiancé, Sergius, are both high-ranking army officers. Mother Catherine and Raina wax rhapsodic about the valorous feats of their warriors in battle.
Later that night, a bedraggled enemy soldier bursts into Raina’s bedroom, needing a place to hide. He cares far more about getting a little grub and shut-eye than garnering military glory. His straightforward manner doesn’t square with the “heroic ideals” that Raina has absorbed from reading Byron and Pushkin. But her umbrage eventually softens, and she feeds him a few chocolates from her nightstand stash. She enlists her mom to help the stranger safely escape.
In the spring, Papa and Sergius return. (Peace negotiations take much longer than the war.) Raina and her victorious hero greet each other with effusive speeches about their “higher love.” But she also spies Sergius getting handsy with the hot housekeeper. And then the mystery soldier reappears: He’s Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss officer whom Papa and Sergius befriended at the treaty talks. Awkward!
It seems that Raina has never quite gotten the “chocolate cream soldier” out of her head. Now that she suspects her “perfect” boyfriend may actually be a mustache-twirling cad, just whom will she deem the ideal conqueror of her heart?
The Valley Players Theater is a delightful venue. Built as a church in the 1830s, the performance space offers the unusual combination of a large stage and fairly small audience capacity. There is not a bad seat in the house. Original woodwork creates warm acoustics and provides architectural details, such as arches and wainscoting, that incorporate beautifully into set design.
Director Michael Carr marshals his troops skillfully in Arms. In community theater, actors bring various levels of experience and training to a production. Carr seems to have helped all the performers develop their characters fully so that the ensemble meshes effectively.
Given Shaw’s chatty script, where the banter is the action, a director must give the actors things to do while they are talking. Carr moves the players deftly around the elegantly appointed stage. He, producer Susan Klein and stage manager Lisa Parro collaborate on the sets, which feature an impressive array of period furniture and props. Papa Petkoff’s library has almost as many taxidermy specimens mounted on the walls as books on the shelves: a giant smiling boar’s head and a deer whose neck is turned so that it looks at the audience.
Especially impressive in this show are all three members of the Petkoff family. Raina’s overwrought ideas, drawn from literature and opera, mean she takes herself too seriously. Amanda Menard plays Raina with appropriate melodramatic flourish: facial expressions sharp, physical movements swift. Raina worships Sergius, and Menard shows how long it takes for her to warm up to the Swiss stranger.
Donna Charron Cristen is a hoot as Mama Petkoff, especially when mustering her Mona Lisa smile to cover up the umpteen lies and schemes she’s trying to conceal from the unsuspecting men. Her eyes widen and gleam, and communicate concern to the other women, but the dunderheaded dudes remain in the dark. As Papa Petkoff, Karl Klein exudes ruddy confidence and harmless bluster. The top officer in the Bulgarian army looks like he wouldn’t hurt a fly.
The two soldiers contrast sharply. Chris Riddell captures Captain Bluntschli’s subdued Swiss nature. Riddell and Menard create a charming rapport between their characters. Bluntschli’s deadpan responses confound Raina, much to the audience’s amusement. Director Carr plays a delightfully over-the-top Sergius, a character who half realizes that he is a caricature of the “gentleman” he professes to be. Carr embraces Sergius’ inner buffoon and blackguard, dramatically arching a single eyebrow and, yes, twirling his mustache.
The lesson of Arms and the Man — that both love and war are not as pretty as the poems make ’em seem — never feels ponderous or pretentious in the Valley Players production. This is as Shaw intended. Heavyhanded messaging in his previous play, Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893), got it banned from the stage for decades. Appealing characters and a lighthearted story — now that’s the way to make a point.
Arms and the Man, directed by Michael Carr and produced by Susan Klein. Valley Players Theater, Waitsfield. Thursday through Saturday, July 14-16, 7:30 p.m. $12.