Arms and the Man review: Sharp Look at Love, War

Robert Hurwitt
Chronicle Theater Critic
February 10, 2012

Any notions of the romance of war go out the window the minute a soldier climbs through one into your bedroom while fleeing a battle's bloodthirsty victors.

That's the basic setup in George Bernard Shaw's great antimilitarism comedy "Arms and the Man. " And the disillusioning reality of combat couldn't be better expressed than it is by Craig Marker's filthy, exhausted, nerve-shattered - and, yes, comically polite - fleeing Capt. Bluntschli at Center Repertory Company.

It helps that director Nancy Carlin prefaces the antiheroic epiphany with strong doses of romantic Balkan music. And with Maggie Mason's Raina, the room's inhabitant, and her mother (Lisa Anne Porter) shrieking like schoolgirls over the Bulgarian cavalry charge, led by Raina's fiance, that scattered the invading, Austrian-led Serbian troops - Swiss mercenary Bluntschli among them (real war, 1885).

The practical career soldier Bluntschli - who packs emergency rations and chocolate in his cartridge belt - is Shaw's levelheaded, egalitarian grenade tossed into the middle of a household brimming with war fever, xenophobia and class consciousness. He's picked the perfect place to hide. Raina's father (a very droll Michael Ray Wisely) is a leading Bulgarian officer. Her fiance, Sergius, is the epitome of military romanticism and foolhardiness (his suicidal charge succeeded by accident), played by a strutting, wildly mustachioed Gabriel Marin with high-operetta flair, sentiment and wounded pride.

Marker's Bluntschli cleans up well as Shaw's antihero-as-romantic lead. Raina's sentimental illusions are progressively shattered, as are Sergius', to a less conscious degree, as he haphazardly develops a more sensible bond with Kendra Lee Oberhauser's saucy servant Louka.

Carlin overplays her hand at times, particularly in the first act. She over-clarifies Shaw's underlying themes by having Mason and Marin emote their "romantic" scenes in a kind of mock-opera-cum-melodrama style. The layering of farce atop Shaw's acute verbal comedy tends to obscure some of his trenchant witticisms, as well as the erotic tension we should sense developing between Bluntschli and Raina and between Sergius and Louka. Victoria Livingston-Hall echoes the overstatement with over-the-top gowns that are distracting and unflattering, though her Bulgarian military outfits are pretty funny.

The more Raina's pretensions are punctured, the better Carlin's stagings work on the slyly exaggerated sets. Marin's pomposity is more inherent to Sergius, and as Carlin draws the romantic comedy and critiques of class and militarism together, Shaw's brilliant comedy works its magic once more. There have been more sure-handed stagings of "Arms" around here, most notably at California Shakespeare Theater. But that was almost a decade ago, and this play deserves to be seen more often than that.

A Rollicking Production of George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man

Richard Connema
February 9, 2012

Arms and the Man was one of Shaw's first commercial successes. I have seen several productions of this delightful romp, including the New York Circle in the Square revival starring Kevin Kline, Raul Julia and Glenne Headly. I also saw a successful West End revival in the '90s starring Richard Brier and Alice Krige.

Arms and the Man is in the tradition of the novels of Victorian England and is a panorama of the entire society at that time. It's a play on marriage, on class warfare and a look at the modern woman of that time. The play is written with the tongue firmly planted in the cheek and is intentionally melodramatic. Shaw has created a comedy of manners that stings as much as it chuckles.

Center Repertory Company of Walnut Creek recently presented an appropriately overemotional production of this satire of the British in the Victorian age with splendid "operetta" melodramatic acting on the part of the actors under the capable direction of Nancy Carlin. Much of the actors' actions and movement reminded me of the Oscar Strauss operetta The Chocolate Solider; only the songs were missing.

The play takes place during the time of the 1885 Serb-Bulgarian War in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Maggie Mason), a young Bulgarian woman engaged to Major Sergius Saranoff (Gabriel Marin), one of the heroes of the war. One night, Captain Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary solider in the Serbian army, bursts through Raina's bedroom window and firstly threatens her, then begs her to hide him so that he is not killed. Raina complies, though she thinks him a coward since he does not carry pistol cartridges but chocolates. When the battle dies down, Raina and her mother Catherine Petkoff (Lisa Anne Porter) sneak Bluntschli out of the house disguised in an old housecoat. All of this touches off the second act which is filled with comedic scenes involving mistaken identities, ironic behavior, wit and general satire.

This production featured some of the finest actors in the Bay Area. Maggie Mason dazzled as Raina Petkoff. Her external innocence was belied by an inner wit and inquisitive, almost cynical nature. One could say she was precocious in a good way. Gabriel Marin, in an outfit straight out of The Student Prince and a wildly shape mustache, was perfect has the uneasily heroic Sergius. He balanced the outward acceptance of his gallant appearance with the inner refusal of it with razor precision. It was a great performance of Victorian acting.

There was much comedy relief by Michael Ray Wisely as Major Petkoff and Lisa Anne Porter as Catherine. They strikingly parodied the British upper classes of the time. Wisely played the Major as an appealingly gregarious old man while Porter gave a solid performance and her facial expressions were very entertaining. Kendra Lee Oberhauser gave a sassy performance with gestures and penetrating looks as the servant who flirts with Sergius. The other servant, Nicola, was played by Aaron Murphy who did a fine portrayal of a stooge while deploying his master to believe he was dependable. Andy Gardner presented a good portrayal of a Russian officer in a small role.

Craig Marker as the professional Swiss soldier vividly portrayed the opposing perspective of Sergius' charge to Raina and at the same time wooed her with Swiss efficiency. He gave a great understated performance. You could say he was the straight man for the clowns in this comedy. In the end she called him her "chocolate cream soldier."

Bravo to Kelly James Tighe for a beautifully detailed set of a Bulgarian living quarters in the 1880s and to Victoria Livingston-Hall for opulent gowns and dashing soldiers outfits. Sound designer Lyle Barrere and lighting designer Kurt Landisman showed precise timing with the sound and lights.

Nancy Carlin and the cast did not change one word of Shaw's sparking comedy but they made this a care-free comedy that would please most theatre audiences.

Arms and the Man played through February 25th at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Coming up next is Neil Simon's farce Rumors opening on March 30 and running through April 28th. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.

CURTAIN CALLS: Cast, set shine in Center REP's "Arms"

Sally Hogarty
February 9, 2012

Kelly Tighe has outdone himself with his fanciful set design for Center Rep's "Arms and the Man." George Bernard Shaw's outrageous satire on war, love and class distinctions opened this past weekend at the Lesher Center and continues through Feb. 25. Festooned in autumn leaves, the proscenium arch invites the audience into this slightly absurd world of Bulgaria at war, where a soldier, who prefers to fill his pockets with chocolate rather than his gun with cartridges, finds refuge in a rich, young woman's bedroom. Full of billowy curtains and a bed in the shape of a quarter moon, the bedroom invites romance before giving way to lush outdoor scenes and interior drawing rooms -- all sharing a backdrop of Tighe's whimsical designs on the back wall, beautifully enhanced by Kurt Landisman's lighting.

Victoria Livingston-Hall furthers director Nancy Carlin's vision with colorful, imaginative costumes including a hot pink, ruffled gown with zebra boots for the silly mother Catherine Petkoff and a bright blue hat dominated by a massive butterfly for her daughter Raina.

The cast seems to be having as much fun as the designers, filling Shaw's larger-than-life characters with a delightful flair. Maggie Mason (Raina) and Gabriel Marin (Sergius) are all hilarious dramatic poses as they strut about the stage with Craig Marker, a charming "chocolate" soldier. Michael Ray Wisely (Major Petkoff), Lisa Anne Porter (Catherine Petkoff), Kendra Lee Oberhauser (the surly Louka) and Aaron Murphy (the faithful Nicola) also have wonderful comic timing but, like the three lovers, they manage to add a complexity to their campy characterizations.

Arms and the Man Earns a Swiss Boquet of Chocolates

Kedar K. Adour
February 2, 2012

Once again Center REP in Walnut Creek has come up with a dazzling, gorgeous, hysterical and impressive production that surely will have an extended run but just in case it doesn’t get your tickets now. Would you believe the list of adjectives describing the show is for a George Bernard Shaw play? Dazzling, gorgeous, hysterical? You had better believe it.

Shaw is notorious for being long winded and preachy with his plays often lasting up to three hours. CenterRep under the guidance of Artistic Director Michael Butler and the astute direction of multi-award winning Nancy Carlin have pared the play down to fast paced two hours and ten minutes of fun in a farcical/comedic manner. Opening night was perfect with the exception of Gabe Marin unintentionally entangling his unwieldy costume in the back of a chair. The cast must be complemented for their professional response and only breaking into suppressed smiles without laughter.

Apparently Arms and the Man is Shaw's most popular play and he disguises his antipathy to war, marriage and social class distinction with a comic scenario that has been turned into the very successful operetta The Chocolate Soldier. It is 1885, Bulgaria and Serbia are in a senseless war and both armies are populated with incompetents. The leader of the Bulgarians is the aging wealthy Major Perkoff (Michael Ray Wisley) and his equally unqualified aide-de-camp and leader of the cavalry, Major Sergious Saranoff (Gabe Marin). On the Serbian side we only meet the Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschili (Craig Marker) who carries chocolates rather than bullets in his ammunition belt.

Alas, poor Bluntschili breaks into the bedroom of the young romantic Raina Perkoff who just happens to be betroth to Sergious whom she romantically fantasizes as the epitome of heroic love unbeknownst to her that Segious is an “accidental hero” with an amorous eye for the maid Louka (Kendra Lee Oberhauser).

Bluntschili’s breaks into Raina’s bed chamber simply to avoid capture and the possibility of death. He describes the ridiculous cavalry charge led by Sergious on a runaway horse that earned him the title of “Hero.” Bluntschilli’s love of chocolate and his gracious demeanor convinces Raina and her mother Catherine( Lisa Anne Porter) to smuggle our erstwhile “chocolate soldier” to safety disguised in Major Petkoff’s coat. That deed will come back to haunt them . . . sort of.

Shaw cleverly uses humor to espouse his philosophical/social tenets about the foolishness of war, idealistic notions of heroism, romance and the folly of social class distinction. To this purpose he often gives some of his most intellectual lines to servants. He displays his support for the working classes’ pride in work by imbuing servant Nicola (Aaron Murphy) with admirable qualities of loyalty. Examples of Nicola and Louka’s pithy dialog about class distinction can be found in many of Shaw’s plays. However in CenterRep’s production Shaw’s cutting philosophy is secondary to the staging since the acting is so stylized that one would expect the actors to break into song at every turn as their intricate shenanigans pile up one after the other.

The two level stage set (Kelly James Tighe) without walls is highly original with the pale blue rear stage adorned with heart-shaped stars. The shocking colorful costumes (Victoria Livingston-Hall) emphasize the farce/comedy motif to match the broad acting technique that uses melodramatic gestures to great effect. Gabe Marin’s depiction of Segious’ hysterically bombastic idiocy is the most visible (read voluble) humor but he must share a great deal of the jocularity with the scene stealing Michael Ray Wisley who has pitch perfect comedic timing.

Director Carlin astutely allows Craig Marker to be the apotheosis of decorum as contrasted to the broad acting of most of the cast. This contrast works very well and the scenes between Mason and Marker are highlights with split second timed glances, biting observations displaying the necessary chemistry and tension.

One might wonder what George Bernard Shaw’s reaction would be to this exuberant concept production being again described as dazzling, gorgeous, hysterical and satirical by this reviewer.

Center Rep breaks hilarious new ground with Shaw's 'Arms and the Man'

Pat Craig
February 1, 2012

Theater fans over the years have speculated about what sort of work George Bernard Shaw would be doing if he were writing today.

That's because even though his plays are more than a century old, they have a contemporary ring to them in terms of the social and moral questions raised and the sharpness of Shaw's dialogue.

But as well done as many have been, most productions are presented with the sort of arm's-length reverence one might afford a museum exhibit - until Tuesday, when Center Repertory Company opened "Arms and the Man" at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.

This watershed production suggests Shaw would be doing pretty much the same stuff he always did, but the inflection and attitude would change. The Nancy Carlin-directed piece, featuring some of the finest actors in the Bay Area, treated the play as all theater should be, as living, breathing works made accessible and companionable to the audience.

So with bits of inspiration from Mel Brooks and even a little bit of "Saturday Night Live," Carlin and her cast, changing not a word from Shaw's script, turned "Arms and the Man" into a rollicking comedy that would stand head-and-shoulders above any comedy you could catch at the multiplex.

As I watched the show, I couldn't stop thinking about the original cast album cover for "My Fair Lady." It featured winged George Bernard Shaw on a cloud perch (supposedly heaven, although the great playwright would probably would not have liked that), pulling the puppet strings attached to Henry Higgins who was, in turn, pulling the strings on Eliza Doolittle. That was at least partly in homage to Shaw's "Pygmalion," upon which "MFL" was based.

As "Arms and the Man" hilariously unfolded, I saw the picture of Shaw (probably on rain clouds and wearing devil horns) holding puppet strings attached to director Nancy Carlin, who was pulling the strings on her wonderful cast. I somehow believed that, up there or down there, Shaw would probably have approved of this production.

At its heart, "Arms" is an anti-war play, preaching, with laughter, the idea that war with all its guts, glory and heroism has just as much cowardice and misplaced self-aggrandizement.

Not that you'd notice the message, because the writing is hilarious and the show unfolds like romance beneath the shell bursts and rifle fire as another war wages in the Balkans, the surrogate playing field for larger nations.

As the bullets and bombs explode, we see a shadowy figure sneak into the room of Raina Petkoff (Maggie Mason), daughter of Major and Mrs. Petkoff (Michael Ray Wisely and Lisa Anne Porter) and fiancé of Major Sergius Saranoff (Gabriel Marin).

As fate would have it, the man who broke in was Captain Bluntschli (Craig Marker), who has cast his lot as a soldier of fortune, although he's not all that smitten with the war game. In face, he tells Raina (who is still basking in the glow of Sergius' heroic and apparently accidental victorious cavalry charge) that he has replaced bullets with chocolate because they are so much more practical in battle.

In other words, it's the inexperienced and stupid soldiers that go gung-ho into battle, like the fool (Sergius) who led that day's cavalry charge that sent Bluntschli almost literally into Raina's arms.

The incident eventually sends everyone to the same place - the Petkoff home - and the comedy, both verbal and physical, flies from there on a set beautifully designed by Kelly James Tighe and in costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall.

Center Rep Satire Treads the Comedic Fringe

Lou Fancher
Walnut Creek Patch
February 2, 2012

She's silly, smart, outrageous and extreme. So is he.

And when you go to Center REP’s Arms and the Man, now playing at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center and running through Feb. 25, you will know the description suits the playwright, the director and the production.

George Bernard Shaw is known for his wickedly witty social commentary, delivered with humor and a certain indulgence for satire that borders on ferocity in some works and trips lightly along the comedic fringe in others.

Director Nancy Carlin, who offered the adjectives above to define her own sense of humor, says in an interview that this play falls in the latter category.

“The situation is more like a farce and is different in that way,” Carlin says, before calling attention to Shaw’s sharp language and “goofy setup.”

Onstage, it’s goofy indeed as Captain Bluntschli (Craig Marker), a Swiss soldier in the Serbian Army, barrels into Raina Petkoff’s (Maggie Mason) satin sheen-covered bedroom. He’s on the run from the Bulgarians, who happen to be led by Raina’s fiancé, Sergius (Gabriel Marin), and her father. After first waving a pistol at his unwilling protector, Bluntschli admits he carries nothing more dangerous than chocolates, which he has consumed to stave off his tremendous fatigue and fear of battle.

Eventually, the intruder is smuggled out of the house and the victorious, pompous Bulgarian’s return. From there, it all becomes a chocolate cream dream, when the dashing Bluntschli returns to pay his respects. Soon enough, Sergius tramples class boundaries by falling in love with the maid, and Raina realizes her intruder is the only man who respects her. The posing, betrayal and lies melt away, revealing the characters’ sweet, but empty, posturing.

Behind it all, is Shaw’s smart political humor and the bold, not-afraid-to-go-to-the-edge direction of Carlin.

“These characters are caught in their own movie,” she insists. “To see that, you have to go all the way. It’s not over-acting. It’s going to where their characters are written—it’s filling the text to where it wants to be.”

Carlin says she came to the work as “a Berkeley flower child who grew up in the sixties,” and sees current parallels to “the hideous reality of nationalistic propaganda” that leads to conflict.

“We continually have leaders pumping up people with notions of stomping off with the latest tool on the way to war,” she complains.

It was no surprise that history repeats itself, but Carlin says there were still discoveries in the process of bringing the production to the stage.

“There were tons of new insights, every day,” she begins. “We assumed the two leading men were just so, but suddenly, we saw the buffoon character has Shaw’s smartest political commentary and the good worker soldier has romanticism.”

Raina’s character gained dimension for Carlin due to the work of the actor who plays the role.

“Mason is very fresh—in a way contemporary, without taking the play out of time. There’s no remove: she’s alive and really knows how to handle the joke within the text.”

Like a military operation, Arms and the Man achieves its purpose through the balance of special forces on the ground.

On opening night, Kendra Lee Oberhauser as the maid, Louka, stands out. She is genuine; capturing a complex, contradictory character within her first entrance and carrying that depth to the final curtain.

Michael Ray Wisely plays Major Petkoff with boundless joy and sports the best profile with pumped-up hair and splendid costumes designed by Victoria Livingston-Hall.

Mason softens the edge between her character’s posing and underlying strength, a distinction which might gain more bite from sharper contrast. Still, she strikes a perfect balance between Marker’s super straight man portrayal and Marin’s campy lunging and delicious delivery of Shaw’s most ridiculous clever lines.

The Benicia Herald

Center REP's "Arms" a class act

Elizabeth Warnimont
Benicia Herald
February 14, 2012

CENTER REPERTORY COMPANY OF WALNUT CREEK can usually be counted on for a quality production, and “Arms and the Man,” George Bernard Shaw’s delightful romantic comedy set in Bulgaria in 1885, is no exception.

Even before the show begins, audiences are treated to a magical, fantasy-themed set by designer Kelly James Tighe, who celebrates his 20th season with Center Rep this year. The opening scene is set against a backdrop of winter woods, slender trees framing a woman’s formal bedchamber. The sleigh-style bed is decorated with glittering stars, as if it could carry away the “fishermen three” from Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

As the lights come up, Raina Petkoff (Maggie Mason) and her mother (Actors’ Equity Association member Lisa Anne Porter as Catherine) appear in cartoonishly ornate gowns, discussing the current battles being waged outside their home, and in particular the soldier hero to whom Raina is betrothed, Major Sergius Saranoff (Equity actor Gabriel Marin). The two squeal with delight at their romantic notion of the valiant battle and their presumably victorious hero, whose framed picture is prominently displayed on Raina’s moon-and-stars vanity.

Shellie Award-winning Center Rep costumer Victoria Livingston-Hall outfits the two women in keeping with the rich fantasy theme of the bedroom. Raina’s shimmery gold nightgown, every inch a ruffle, is emblazoned with large, silver crescent moon and star motifs. (One of Raina’s later ensembles has large hummingbird silhouettes printed on the back of a silky blue shrug, its matching hat sporting an oversize butterfly that appears to float a few inches overhead.) Catherine’s gown is equally well ruffled, hot pink in color and draped in matching pink tulle.

Shaw intended for audiences to feel the spirit of the absurd, and the costumes and properties in Scene One leave little room for uncertainty there. The remaining scenes and characters are not treated the same way, however, even though the action is no less ridiculous elsewhere. Perhaps such emphasis was only required to set the mood in the opening scene, or maybe it’s supposed to come as a surprise when the men reveal their equally inane perspectives later on.

Mason is loaded with personality and imbues the entire production with cheerful enthusiasm. Porter is equally well suited to the role of Catherine, outwardly a keeper of order and protocol but secretly a co-conspirator with her daughter in the wacky situations that develop as the story goes on. Equity actor Craig Marker is hilarious as Captain Bluntschli, the oddball enemy soldier who seeks refuge in Raina’s boudoir. Marker plays well off the other characters, especially his eventual rival Saranoff (Marin). Marker and Mason have an easy, affectionate chemistry that enhances the fairytale charm of the story.

Next in line in the order of absurdity is Major Saranoff, the iconic embodiment of strength and heroism. Truth be told, his brave, suicidal charge in the storied battle actually happened quite by accident. The major’s buffoonery is enhanced by a prominent handlebar moustache, but his folly is most evident in his exaggerated posing, which his beloved Raina mimics in kind. The two seem to bring out the height of pretension in each other.

If foreign Capt. Bluntschli sets off the characters around him by his uncouth but strangely lucid personality, then Louka (Kendra Lee Oberhauser) serves a similar purpose as the rebellious household servant. Deception rules in this farcical tale, and everyone seems to be playing at something except Louka, who winds up setting everything straight in spite of herself. Oberhauser’s character is in turn complemented by her counterpart, Aaron Murphy as the more serious and amenable servant Nicola. Nicola aims to please and doesn’t mind telling a fib if it makes his master’s life easier.

The most innocent character of all is Major Petkoff (Equity actor Michael Ray Wisely), the oblivious head of the Petkoff household. Wisely, familiar to many as the Spirit of Christmas Present from Center Rep’s annual “A Christmas Carol,” is charming as always, baffled by the incongruities around him but content to soothe himself with a pipeful in his den.

Amusing costumes and thoughtful, artistic sets provide a classy foundation for Center Rep’s impressive rendition of the Shaw classic. “Arms and the Man” is a fun, lighthearted romp — quality entertainment in one of the area’s most luxurious venues.