When George Bernard Shaw’s witty comedy Arms and the Man debuted in 1894 in Dublin, it was a hit. Shaw described it as “one joke after another … a firecracker.” That’s pretty much what you’ll experience onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC), making its first foray into Shaw’s prolific output. I hope we’ll see more Shaw on Race Street, based on the success of this production.
Arms and the Man follows Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary soldier who escapes from a battle by stealing into the bedroom of Raina, a romantic young Bulgarian woman. Her fiancé Sergius is a dashing cavalry officer, and she’s captivated by his foolhardy heroism. But Bluntschli’s pragmatism wins her affections — after many complications involving uppity servants and Raina’s doltish, bourgeois parents.
Concluding CSC’s 15th season, Arms and the Man offers verbal precision and wit. In a production directed by Matt Johnson, who as an actor excels in physical comedy, there’s hardly a moment that isn’t setting up or recovering from a laugh.
Shaw’s comedy is driven by the intersection of Raina’s giddy notions, her arrogant fiancé’s blustering and posing and the down-to-earth Bluntschli’s ability to see through all the tomfoolery.
Kelly Mengelkoch and Josh Stamoolis are hilarious as the giggling, gushing lovers, full of rhapsodic pronouncements and outlandishly demonstrative gestures — at one moment, bidding Sergius farewell, Raina mimes grasping her heart and blowing it in his direction, which he captures and places in his own chest.
Their every move and action is intentionally overdone, frequently reinforced by Sherman Fracher and Jim Hopkins as Raina’s pretentious, status-conscious parents who yearn to add a heroic son-in-law to their social aspirations, premised on trivial items like an electric bell to summon servants. Fracher and Hopkins use exquisite comic timing with amusing facial and physical humor to convey their one-dimensional characters.
CSC veteran Jeremy Dubin offers a controlled portrait of the “chocolate creme soldier” — Bluntschli carries chocolates rather than bullets in his cartridge case. He ignores all the fripperies swirling around him and espouses a perspective that makes Raina’s “incredibly romantic disposition” seem all the more ludicrous in her grand declarations and physical posing. Although small in stature, Dubin’s verbal skills, his expressive face and his sense of timing are exactly the qualities needed to make Bluntschli the perfect foil to the overdone characters around him. The show ends with the exclamation, “What a man!” — and it’s only slightly ironic.
The pragmatic view is also underscored by two servants — the feisty Louka (Hayley Clark) and the obsequious Nicola (CSC Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips) — who define the spectrum of attitudes for living in the modern world. She takes a no-nonsense, right-between-the-eyes position on romance and servitude, while he flies under the radar to maintain his equilibrium.
Costumes underscore the characters: Raina is decked out in ruffles and flourishes, while Sergius and Raina’s father wear bright green uniforms with green braid, looking more like get-ups for an operetta than a war. Bluntschli is in a more earthbound grey, signifying his lower profile and objective view of the world. It’s great work by costumer Heidi Jo Scheimer. The scenic design (credited to Lex van Blommestein) is simple but effective, with each of the three acts offering rooms outfitted with pleasant Victorian furnishings, backed by two oversized tripods of muskets with tattered flags draped across them.
If you’re one of those people who avoids classic plays because you won’t get what’s going on, get a ticket for Arms and the Man. You’ll find yourself laughing out loud at a 115-year-old play that feels like a piece of contemporary humor.
ARMS AND THE MAN, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through May 31. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.