Sunday, March 23, 2003

Arms and the Man (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

‘ARMS AND THE MAN' marches to victory

“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” “Oh, war! war! the dream of patriots and heroes! A fraud...a hollow sham...” What do these lines have in common? Of course they are speeches, recently spoken at pro and anti-war rallies. If that’s what you thought, you’re wrong. They were written in 1894 by George Bernard Shaw for his play, ‘ARMS AND THE MAN.” Like much of Shaw, his ideas are as relevant today as they were when he penned them.

‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ is one of Shaw's earliest and most popular plays. He took the title from the opening line of Virgil's epic poem the "Aeneid," which begins "Of arms and the man I sing." Virgil glorified war. Shaw, on the other hand, uses the play to attack the romantic notion of war by presenting a depiction of war, devoid of the idea that death and destruction are noble. It is not an anti-war statement, but rather a satirical assault on those who glorify war.

The setting of the play is in war-torn Bulgaria. The story focuses not only on the romance between the young people of the play, but the atrocities that go on during war times and the ability of people to ignore the horrors completely. Written just a few years before World War I, Shaw's play turned out to be sadly prophetic. When war was declared, young men flooded to sign up, carrying with them the wholly romantic but inaccurate ideas of the glory of combat.

The secondary theme of the play is love and marriage. Shaw, in his usual satirical way states, “When two people are under the influence of the most violent, most insane, more delusive, and most transient of passions, they are required to swear that they will remain in the excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously under death do them part.”

As one theatre expert stated about the play, “The success of ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ has been consistent right from its first production. The original staging of the play was so well received that Shaw's reputation as one of the greatest wits in the London drama scene was almost instantly established.” The Great Lakes Theatre production, under the creative and able hand of Artistic Director Charles Fee, will do little to harm Shaw’s reputation. This is a well-designed, expertly-acted, thoroughly enjoyable and edifying evening of theatre.

The cast, which consists of both local and imported actors, give highly professional performances. Dudley Swetland is perfectly stuffy as the Major. Carole Healey is wonderful as the flighty wife. Sara Bruner is adorable and charming as their love struck daughter. David Anthony Smith is right on target as the self-loving philandering Major. Ashley Smith, with his matinee idol good looks, makes the perfect Chocolate Soldier. Laura Perrotta creates a delightful tart with a mind of her own as the maid. Tom Ford makes buttling fun.

Although the script is now more than a hundred years old, its themes of love and war are as valid as ever. Its comedy is still fresh and entertaining and its story of love and romance appeals to all.

Capsule Judgment: Congratulations to Charles Fee for teaching us what quality level professional theatre in Cleveland can be. He is a much welcomed addition to the local performance scene. Hopefully, he will be with us a long, long time and continue in his already successful quest to make GLTF the cream of local professional theatres.