A clever and alert theatrical company combs past catalogues for legacy plays that balance its menu, seeking seasonings of period insight and neglected graces to illuminate its urgent present. The best managements do this so well that a revival can seem fresh and charming just by its selection, production aside.
But all is right with George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, now at the Old Globe in a thoroughly delightful staging of wise wit, addressing concerns and filling needs we may not have realized we had.
This is early Shaw, written before he assumed the mantel of Supreme Deflator. All he’s after here is Romanticism and its stranglehold on popular entertainment. His antidote to these ruts of illusion is a clean, bracing, skeptical realism that clears the atmosphere like rain in a drought, demonstrating what wonders an old frame can bring to a new picture.
Capt. Bluntschli is a mercenary soldier in the employ of the Serbs, who are on the run from the victorious Bulgarians in some minor Balkan war of the late 1880s. Staggering with exhaustion and totally out of chocolate, he bursts through the balcony window into the boudoir of a wealthy Bulgarian maiden, just steps ahead of his pursuers, and demands asylum. Raina Petkoff, the proud young daughter of one Bulgarian major and the passionate fiancé of another, at first defies the officer’s revolver (which is empty anyway) but then takes pity on his peril and impulsively hides him from the searching soldiers.
Later, despite his desperate fatigue, Bluntschli makes his case with such straightforward eloquence, frankly admitting his helplessness after a Bulgarian cavalry charge overran his ammunition-less machine-gun battery, that Raina and her mother contrive to help him escape.
It’s a standard first act for a melodrama of the period, but Shaw has his tweakers out. That cavalry charge, already being celebrated as magnificent heroism, was a mistake: An incompetent Bulgarian officer lost control of his horse and his soldiers followed along. A botched suicide attempt by an idiot, Bluntschli says scornfully. Surprise! The idiot in question is Maj. Sergius Saranoff, Raina’s beloved soul-mate. Assuming the worst reaction, the captain moves to the window and certain death but Raina says, “Wait…”
In the two acts that follow, each of the stock characters blow past their traditional melodramatic business and melt into real people, with dream and ambitions and complications. Sergius is a strutting gamecock but it’s hard work and he’s learning his limitations. Raina, smarter than she looks, finds her perceptions strained and her sights rising. The servant girl angrily rejects the life stretching before her while her male colleague embraces it. And Bluntschli, back on a visit following the truce to return an overcoat borrowed as a disguise for his escape, is as brisk and efficient as…well, as a Swiss businessman about to take over the family’s chain of grand hotels.
The older generation remains constant, prosperous bourgeoisies of a minor nation anxious for peace and quiet, but everybody else ends far from where they began, the filters of romanticism ripped from their newly freed vision.
And, of course, Shaw wields as always the needles of his relentless wit and scorn for persiflage. Using Bulgarians as stand-ins for all pretentions to civilization, he faults their hygiene and their literacy. The Swiss he goads for their traditional cold precision. Soldiers are divided into cold professionals and idiot amateurs. And still, each of these stereotypes is susceptible to simple, blatant humanity.
It’s a familiar toolbox these days, but Shaw was leading the way in burning away the accumulated cobwebs of cliché that freed the theatre for a dawning golden age.
For the Globe, Jessica Stone has directed this sturdy piece with clarity and confidence, with a fond, amused, even conspiratorial respect for the author, well short of worship. She has found no need to adjust the text; she makes her magic with interpretation.
Zach Appelman plays Bluntschli, even in the throes of desperation, with the dapper poise and genial bonhomie of a very successful shopkeeper. Any slim, spirited girl can be right for Raina, but the flash and calculation of Wrenn Schmidt is a welcome bonus. Likewise, any saucy lass can find the sass of the servant girl Louka, but Sofiya Akilova has stumbled into petulance while trying to establish broody determination.
The role of Sergius is the real gem of the show, sought out by vivid actors from Laurence Olivier to Marlon Brando, and Enver Gjokaj feasts. He looks haunted by the late prime of John Barrymore and his relentless physicality allows him to do an about-face that somehow travels 270 degrees.
Marcia Mason and Conrad John Schuck, distinguished senior players trailing fond memories at every crossing of the stage, bring comfortable dignity to Raina’s parents. And Greg Hildreth is a servant of such sterling promise that he almost out-Swisses the Swiss.
The ravishing mountain tableau, sunlight and snow-capped, by Ralph Funicello completely forgives an otherwise undistinguished assortment of scenery. Austin R. Smith’s lighting makes the most of such an apparition and otherwise shows admiral period subtleties.
The sumptuous and detailed costumes of David Israel Reynoso somewhat overwhelm the modest aspirations specified in the script but they’re enormous fun, except for the rather free-lance approach to uniforms. And Mark Bennett’s music shakes paprika over everything, even spilling into the audience via the insinuating gypsy fiddling of Ernest Sauceda.
So many thanks to the Old Globe for such a hearty revival of a play that both entertains audiences and celebrates a branch of theatre history.
(Continues on the Old Globe main stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays=Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 14, 2015.)