Shaw’s ‘Arms and the Man’ An Absurd Wartime Farce

By BETSY M. HUNTON Special to the Planet
Friday July 11, 2003

The short version of this review is that everyone needs to drop everything and get out to Orinda to see California Shakespeare’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” 

It’s hilarious. As a matter of fact, it would be hard for even a truly devoted nit-picker to find any nits to pick in this piece of pure fun. This is one terrific production of a terrific comedy: a marvelous way to spend a summer’s evening.  

And no, it isn’t dated. It’s just funny. 

Shaw, a famously wordy playwright, restrained himself in this, his first play to be seen by the public. (An earlier one had exactly two performances for a private audience). There are no long speeches here, and the message, if any, seems to be that common sense is a big winner over high-falutin’ theatrics. 

This delightful piece of absurdity concerns itself with the actions of a rather bat-brained upper-class family during a romanticized version of a Balkan war. No one is going to get hurt in the war, mind you. They just get a chance to roam around doing dramatic things. As the play opens, Raina (terrifically played by Stacy Ross) is in rapture over the news that her fiancée has heroically led a charge against the Bulgarians, resulting in their flight. It turns out, of course, that the “hero” didn’t lead anything: His horse ran away with him.  

But that comes later. The immediate problem is that one of the Bulgarian soldiers in flight from the Serbs (Rainia’s side, remember?) climbs through the window into her bedroom. He turns out to be Captain Bluntschli, a professional soldier from Switzerland who simply signed on to the first army that happened to come by. He couldn’t care less about the high falutin’ romantic notions that the other characters claim are such a big deal. 

What with one thing and another, Rainia and her somewhat fluffy-headed mother (a skillful Domenique Lozano) decide to hide the refugee, a situation that is destined to cause endless amounts of trouble when her father, a Serbian Major, ( Brian Keith Russell is definitely papa ) shows up. Oh, and then there’s her Serbian fiancée, the hero home from the wars  

( Dan Hiatt struts most delightfully in the role). He wouldn’t be overly happy about the man in her bedroom, either. 

Down in the kitchen, the maid Louka (Delia MacDougall) and Nicola, the servant (Triney Sandoval, who doubles as a Russian Officer) do a great point-counterpoint to the goings on upstairs: They’re engaged but they both have more pressing goals than their marriage. There’s no question that the ambitious Nicola is going to get his own shop sooner or later—he prefers sooner—and Louka has her own ideas about how to improve her station in life. With their knowledge of the goings on upstairs, their futures look bright. 

Anthony Fusco seems to have been born to play the practical, business-like Captain Bluntschli. Despite his romantic appearance in Rainia’s life, this man’s solid contact with reality baffles the house full of drama kings and queens he’s entered so precipitously. But, as is always the case when such opposites contact, they find that he definitely has his uses.  

California Shakespeare brought Lillian Groag up from Los Angeles to direct this play and it would be nice to see a whole lot more of her work. She has done an extraordinary job. The cast, of course, could hardly be bettered and there is a tremendous use of the huge outdoor stage. She has even succeeded in turning the scene changes into one of the great delights of the evening. An hilarious troop of “chocolate soldiers” dance about the stage doing quite wonderful things that make you regret the fact that they don’t get to stay longer.  

Shaw was annoyed— or pretended to be— with the fact that the play was such a smashing success. He insisted that it really wasn’t supposed to be all that funny. But he was still willing to take the money he made and run: He quit his job as a drama critic. Obviously Shaw suffered terribly over the issue.  

If so, the poor man must be twirling in his grave.