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SCR Takes Up ‘Arms’ to Great Effect

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

“On my honor, it was a serious play,” protested its author, George Bernard Shaw, when “Arms and the Man” first opened in 1894 and audiences laughed throughout. Shaw was being only partially facetious; his play represents one of the funniest victories ever of hard thinking over luxurious idealism, whether applied to love or to war. At South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Martin Benson has directed a delightful, beautifully cast production of “Arms” that does full justice to Shaw’s early play--a romantic comedy with serious ideas about the way the world should work.

Late one night, a hired Swiss soldier, fighting on the Serb side in the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885, climbs into the bedroom window of a young lady, Raina Petkoff (Nike Doukas), from the very best family in Bulgaria. He is escaping the fighting that has spilled onto the city street below her balcony. Even though Capt. Bluntschli (Harry Groener) is fighting a regiment led by Raina’s own fiance, she agrees to help the exhausted, starving Swiss, who is so grateful for the chocolates she feeds him that he almost cries.

Thus begins one of Shaw’s most winning love stories. Laughing at Raina’s image of her fiance’s heroics on the battlefield, Bluntschli refuses to confirm the young lady’s grand ideas of soldiering, or life, or love, or anything. But he touches that part of her constructed personality that longs for authenticity and truth.

Harry Groener is an ideal Bluntschli. He combines John Cleese’s self-effacement with the physical grace of the young Dick Van Dyke. Primarily a song-and-dance man, Groener uses his body brilliantly in the scene in Raina’s bedroom, when she orders him to stand up while he is falling asleep on his feet. His brain wants to obey her but his lanky limbs have a will of their own, and they perform an intoxicating little ballet--a war between duty and the senses.

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Bluntschli’s plain speaking is in opposition to the grandiose way Raina and her fiance, Sergius (Daniel Richert), talk to each other about the “higher love.” Finding the “higher love” exhausting, Sergius turns his affections to Raina’s fetching maid Louka (Alicia Wollerton), a woman with self-serving ideas about social equality. Sergius is no common heel; he agonizes over his own hypocrisy. Richert delivers an unabashedly comic Sergius--a preening man with a fatuous mustache who sucks in his lips when crossed--that nevertheless gets across a sense of a human being trying to make sense of contradictory impulses.

As Raina, Doukas looks ravishing (a bit like Disney’s Princess Jasmine, with the help of Walter Hicklin’s whimsical costumes) but could tone down the cuteness in Raina’s headstrong aspect. As her mother, Sally Kemp is very funny whenever she lies to her husband, which is often, and Richard Doyle is excellent as the oblivious Major Petkoff, grimacing to keep up with everyone, which he can never quite manage to do. Jefrey Alan Chandler adds a layer of quiet scrutiny as the servant Nicola. Shaw obviously enjoyed skewering the pretensions of the Petkoffs, a family inordinately proud that they have a library (Michael C. Smith’s solid set shows it to have about 12 books).

But first and foremost, “Arms and the Man” is a love story, even though Shaw viewed romance as nothing but extended immaturity. “You are the first man I ever met who did not take me seriously,” says Raina to Bluntschli, and he answers, “You mean, don’t you, that I am the first man that has ever taken you quite seriously?” Director Benson has taken Shaw’s characters quite seriously, and he will have you rooting for Raina and Bluntschli to find not the higher love, but the real thing, never mind what George Bernard Shaw would say about it.

* “Arms and the Man,” South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday., 2:30 p.m. Ends June 30. $17-$38. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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“Arms and the Man,”

Nike Doukas: Raina Petkoff

Sally Kemp: Catherine Petkoff

Alicia Wollerton: Louka

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Harry Groener: Captain Bluntschli CQ

David Nevell: Russian Officer

Jefrey Alan Chandler: Nicola

Richard Doyle: Major Petkoff

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Daniel Richert: Major Sergius Saranoff

A South Coast Repertory production. By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Martin Benson. Sets Michael C. Smith. Costumes Walker Hicklin. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Original music and sound Michael Roth. Production manager Michael Mora. Stage manager Scott Harrison.


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