Difficult though it may be to believe from recent headlines, when George Bernard Shaw chose a Serbo-Bulgarian war as the setting for his 1894 comedy, "Arms and the Man," he was looking for a minor conflict with minimal bloodshed.
In a note in the program for Center Stage's current production, director Irene Lewis acknowledges, "Echoes of this contemporary conflict reverberate throughout the play." But, she adds, "To equate the territorial, imperialist war of 'Arms and the Man' with the ethnic and religious genocide occurring in the Balkans today is, to my mind, unfair and misleading."
And indeed, what interested Shaw was the contrast between realism and romanticism, between courageous soldiers who carried chocolate instead of ammunition and silly soldiers who -- led suicidal cavalry charges in the mistaken name of bravery.
Although his notions still hold, by today's standards Shaw's military men look like so many toy soldiers and their ladies like schoolgirls playing at being their sweethearts.
This innocence is what Lewis captures in her enchanting production. The last act, for example, takes place in the library belonging to the nouveau riche Petkoff family, which prides itself on having the only library in Bulgaria. However, in the hands of Lewis and set designer John M. Conklin, this room looks more like a nursery.
Not only does it contain only two books, but during the scene change between the second and third acts, the library is visited by an actor in a bear costume. Though no one on stage pays any attention to him, he's aware of them; in fact, the bear is the only one who reacts to another of Lewis' amusing inventions -- an operatic duet sung by the main characters before the act begins. In other words, this big cuddly bear is as much a part of the scenery as a child's teddy bear, and he's also a reminder that Shaw intended the newly aristocratic Petkoffs to be only slightly removed from barbarians.
But back to those main characters, who are, after all, the soul of Shaw's debate. They are Capt. Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary fighting for the retreating Serbs, and Raina Petkoff, a hopeless romantic who offers him refuge and feeds him chocolate creams when he admits he's exhausted the supply he carries in place of cartridges.
Mari Nelson and Robert Westenberg hilariously capture the exaggerated qualities Shaw skewers. With her little-girl voice and flitting movements, Nelson's Raina is so brimming with theories of "higher love" and adolescent passions that it's no wonder Bluntschli mistakenly assumes she's a teen-ager. In contrast, Westenberg's professional soldier appears to be the soul of pragmatism, as plain and practical as his soiled but serviceable uniform.
This central couple is supported by an accomplished cast, particularly Lisa C. Arrindell as the Petkoff's spirited maid and James J. Lawless as Raina's gruff father. However, in the important role of Raina's foolishly heroic fiance, Morgan Strickland frequently seems more like a member of a 20th-century fraternity than a 19th-century Eastern European household.
Shaw categorized "Arms and the Man" as one of his "Plays Pleasant," meaning it focused on struggles within the individual, as opposed to society at large. The war he was most concerned with was the internal battle in which victory means coming to terms with your true nature. At Center Stage, the depiction of this victory is as sweet as, well, chocolate creams.
"Arms and the Man"
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., most Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through June 6.
Call: (410) 332-0033.