Sunday, November 12, 2006

Arms and the Man (Actors' Summit)

‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ highlights Shaw’s message at Actors’ Summit

George Bernard Shaw’s ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ is presently in production at Actors’ Summit.

A director of ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ has a decision to make. Should the play be staged as a comedy or as a no-holds-barred farce? The former approach allows Shaw’s lines to carry the humor and create the message. The latter allows the audience to have a whale of a good time laughing at the outlandishness of the actors, the setting, overblown concept, and even the costumes.

When the Shaw Festival of Canada produced the show earlier this year, the director did it as a no-holds-barred farce. The characters were much bigger than life. The lines were so broadly presented that everything short of holding up “laugh now” signs was present.

The result was that Shaw’s messages, including women’s rights (“People don’t live up to their ideals.”), the ridiculousness of the upper classes (“Everything I think is mocked by everything I do.”), the stupidity of war (“War is a sham, like love.”), and the absurdity of existence (“Life’s a farce.”) were often not on the surface for all to grasp, but the audience had one heck of a good time.

A. Neil Thackaberry, the director of the Actor’s Summit production, decided to follow Shaw’s own words, “Life isn’t a farce,” and present the play as a comedy. In general, the languid pace and Shavian message-centered-approach worked well.

The story concerns Raina, the wealthy young daughter of a rich Bulgarian nobleman and her relationships with a pompous, weak-minded yet extremely handsome military bumbler, as well as the “Chocolate Soldier,” an intelligent, charming mercenary who is befriended when he sneaks into her bed chamber in order to avoid being killed by her countrymen. Through a series of unbelievable and silly incidents, everything turns out exactly as it should.

The production is blessed with some wonderful performances by Alicia Kahn, Dana Hart, Dorothy Silver and Reuben Silver.

Kahn creates her Raina as a spoiled, dreamer of fairy-tale love, who is also a pragmatist. She is both charming and delightful in creating a consistent characterization.

Hart, as Captain Bluntschli, is right on key as the clever mercenary, who, like his beloved chocolate creams, is crusty on the outside, but soft on the inside. He creates an appealing “chocolate soldier.”

The Silvers, as always, texture their characters as Raina’s parents, with meaningful double-takes and delightful character development.

On the other hand, Joe Bishara as the supposedly arrogant Sergius, just isn’t pompous and self-puffed up enough. He looks the role, but plays at being Sergius, rather than being the character. His inconsistency is the major weakness of the production. Sally Groth as Louka, the servant, is adequate, but doesn’t have the spark, the incendiary characteristics needed to make her more royalty than servant.

Working on a limited budget, Mary Jo Alexander’s costumes are quite representative of the era, but lack of the quality to make for total believability. The set was not of the opulence that would be expected by the “only family in Bulgaria to have a library.” The humor of the “only library” was ruined because the room was missing books. There should have been a few clearly highlighted volumes to draw the irony of Shaw’s stressing the literary storage area. (This is another of Shaw’s hits on the inept educational system and showmanship rather than actual edification of the upper classes.)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Actors’ Summit’s ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ makes for a pleasant evening of theatre, which has a languid pace that cuts down on the gaiety, but does increase understanding of Shaw’s concepts, making it a production worth seeing.