Arms and the Man

"Of arms and the man I sing," begins Virgil's Aeneid, the inspiration for these Shavian musings on love and war, and the hypocrisies rampant throughout these theatres of the human condition.

Left to right, Leroy Leonard as Petkoff and Michael Gunst as Sergius
(L to R) Leroy Leonard as Petkoff
and Michael Gunst as Sergius
Shaw sets his comedy during and after the Serbo-Bulgarian War, which lasted for two weeks in late 1885. Catherine Petkoff (Diane Wziontka) is recounting the latest news from the front to her daughter, Raina (Sara Woodyard), including how well Raina's betrothed, Sergius Saranoff (Michael Gunst), a Bulgarian officer, has acquitted himself in battle. The maid, Louka (Lisa Mumpton)—who is engaged to Nicola (Donald Ryan), the Petkoffs' manservant—enters to report that Serbian soldiers are being chased into the area.

Raina romanticizes the report of Sergius' exploits and waxes on about his virtues. Shortly thereafter, as she contemplates all this, alone in her second-story room, in the window bursts Captain Bluntschli (Stephen R. Kramer), a professional soldier fighting for the Serbs, on the run from hot-in-pursuit Bulgarian troops. He threatens to shoot her if she does not cooperate and protect him.

The life or death situation is quickly defused—as Raina tells the Bulgarian soldiers knocking at the door that no one has entered the premises—and, as she and Bluntschli fall into a comfortable banter, she learns that Sergius survived a reckless charge only because the Serbian guns were without ammunition; otherwise, he would have died ingloriously. She also learns that Bluntschli carries chocolates instead of ammunition, which utterly charms her. Later, she loans Bluntschli an old housecoat of her father's, Major Paul Petkoff (Leroy Leonard), and sneaks him out of the area. ... And that's just the first few scenes!

The martial and sexual posturing of all concerned is hilarious. Woodyard holds a wonderful tension for Raina between the protocols of formality—required by her family's position and the social mores of the times—and the desires of her heart, which she shows us in unguarded moments, when no one else is present, or when she is facing away from the others. Her two suitors couldn't be any different: Gunst's Sergius is a model of pomposity and posturing; while Kramer's Bluntschli is practical and without pretense.

Raina's parents are the source of her formality. Wziontka's precise elocution and orderly carriage along with Leonard's deadpan punchlines—"There would have been no war without the mercenaries!"—could be any contemporary bourgeois couple whose loyalties remain with "our superior system."

Much like Shakespeare, Shaw is deft at running congruent plots for different classes, though Shaw's politics compel him to reward the poor: Mumpton's outspoken and coy Louka breaks class barriers in love, and Ryan's loyal and circumspect Nicola breaks class barriers in business.

It's no wonder that this play has remained one of Shaw's most popular; it is as relevant today, with its commentary on the affairs of the heart and the ego, as it was in the Gilded Age, when Shaw helped found the London School of Economics, became Britain's most prolific pamphleteer since Jonathan Swift, and filled the theatres with biting satire. This is the twentieth production of Shaw at the Germinal Stage, going back to 1977, and it shows in Baierlein's crisp and genuinely comedic production, amplified by Sally Diamond's spot-on costumes.

Germinal Stage Denver's presentation of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man runs through April 30th. For tickets, call 303-455-7108.

Bob Bows

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