Arms and the Man

Sergius Saranoff is the very model of a Major and a gentleman. We learn this in the first scene of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man when his fiancée, Raina Petkoff, coos over a photograph of him in full officer’s garb and revels in reports of his valor and bravery. Sergius and Raina belong to the two richest families in Bulgaria, which of course makes them an excellent match. However, it is not Sergius but a different soldier who makes an appearance in Raina’s room that night. Fleeing the battle unfolding on the street, a soldier from the Serbian army has climbed into her balcony and taken refuge in her room. His presence disturbs Raina – not so much because he’s an enemy combatant, but rather because he has fled the battle cowardly. Unlike her idealized Sergius, this very real man displays no fortitude or honor. But his cowardice inspires her gallantry. She and her mother Catherine decide to hide and protect him.

When he comes back some months later it is under very different circumstances: Sergius and Raina’s father have both returned since peace has been declared between Serbia and Bulgaria. These well-situated Bulgarians learn that their mystery man is Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss officer, who had fought with the Serbians as a mercenary. His sheer pragmatism contrasts sharply with the idealized notions of love, honor, and country that the Petkoffs and the Saranoffs hold so dear.

The Guthrie’s production of Arms and the Man, directed by Ethan McSweeny, is most successful when it plays up this contrast to great comic effect. Crackling with wit, Shaw’s text hilariously exposes the artifice involved in the arts of war and love. For example, Catherine Petkoff, played deftly by Katie Eifrig, complains that she’ll have to get used to not hating the Serbians and their allies. “Welcome our friend, the enemy,” she says when her husband, Major Petkoff (Peter Michael Goetz), urges her to make Captain Bluntschli (Jim Lichtscheidl) feel welcome. The production also succeeds with its physical comedy, under the restrained and effective direction of the Guthrie’s movement director Marcela Lorca. Faces contort to illustrate the difference between how a character feels and how he or she should feel. Arms flail and legs bend into exaggerated poses that highlight the rigors and absurdities of social grace and custom. Michael Schnatz as Sergius is particularly good in this respect, as are Lichtscheidl and Eifrig. Set designs by Walt Spangler offer an apt visual counterpoint that works in the favor of this light comedy, from a massive floral vine that might have emerged from Jim Henson’s hothouse to an overabundance of large-game trophy heads suspended ingeniously to mark the invisible walls of the library. In addition, the costumes (designed by Murell Horton), are at once hilarious and gorgeous.

When the production backs away from these comedic elements, it falters. The moments that dampen the wit and lack visual gags make Shaw’s drama seem less like a satire and more like a sermon. Many of the exchanges between Raina’s maid Louka (Summer Hagen) and the Petkoffs’ servant Nicola (J.C. Cutler) fall flat.  The two are engaged, but whereas Nicola accepts his current station and aspires only to one day be a shopkeeper, Louka longs for social advancement and claims to lack “the heart of a servant.” The contrast between their attitudes and the strain it puts on their relationship comes across as heavy handed in part because its comedic potential remains untapped.

One of the difficulties in carrying off these scenes is that Louka and Nicola’s characters share no romantic spark. They may be socially well-matched, but Louka’s heart isn’t in it. Likewise, Raina (Mariko Nakasone) and Sergius theoretically form a perfect couple. Not only do they come from the most prominent families in Bulgaria but they are both equally (and often quite funnily) demonstrative of their good fortune and position. But a huge deficit exists between their professions of “higher love” for each other and their actual feelings. By the end of the play, new matches are made. And yet these new matches – which presumably conform less to social convention and more to true affection – also fail to convince in the Guthrie’s production because the couples formed fail to project much chemistry or desire. As a result the new matches ring just as hollow as the old, which undercuts the drama’s critiques of the outmoded rules of courtship and the strictures of idealized, romantic love.

The production more successfully highlights the anxiety of ideals when treating patriotism and bourgeois advancement. An interlude between the first and second acts features the Petkoff family and servants singing their national anthem while raising a Bulgarian flag. The booming major chords of the song match perfectly with their fervent devotion to the flag. But when the gramophone abruptly winds down in the middle of a chorus, they stop singing, unsure of what to do. It is only after Nicola winds the device back up that their homage to their flag can continue. The interlude does an excellent job of showing how patriotism can simultaneously be deeply felt and thoroughly contrived.

Other strains of this very careful attention to the everyday habits of class and nation are more subtle but worth remarking, and this production had a full complement of behind-the-scenes talent to help, including speech coaches Wendy Waterman and Erika Bailey. A sort of plain speech underscores the uncontrived manner of Lichtscheidl’s Captain Bluntschli and helps him to become such an effective straight man in this comedy. His vocal understatement is in no way reminiscent of the typical Swiss sing-song goatherd caricature often made of this character, and thus contrasts very well with the overwrought diction of Raina and Sergius, or of Major Petkoff’s blustery patrician mumbling. While it’s certainly not necessary that every play have something serious to say about the world, this production worked best when it allowed the actors to work a careful craft of voice and body, and not be overshadowed by either the weight of class consciousness or the enormity of the Guthrie’s production values.

Guthrie Theater
818 South Second St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415

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