Yes, “Arms and the Man” is that Shaw comedy about a Balkan war, an irreverent tale laden with hypocrisy, constantly shifting realities, and heroes who are decidedly anti-heroic. So what if it’s nearly a century old? Its message works now. Thus goes the thinking of a theater org aiming to reach today’s audiences. But updating a classic so it’s relevant to today’s world is fiendishly difficult — doubly so if it’s a comedy. And this production gets trapped in that bog.
More disappointingly, it appears that director Lisa Peterson didn’t have faith that Shaw’s superbly satirical verbal wit could carry the day. She’s added a lot of shtick and turned at least one character into an unfunny cartoon: Maj. Saranoff (Andrew Weems), the war hero heralded for leading a surprise cavalry charge that turned the battle tide.
Shaw’s plot certainly paints him a fool and hypocrite, but Peterson and Weems make the man silly unto absurdity.
Most of the others get to play their lines straighter and give subtlety a fighting chance, but too often a Shavian point gets obscured by some stage business.
It’s part of the general muddle, with portions of Shaw’s 1885-86 setting blending unharmoniously with scenes out of today’s newsreels. Military uniforms range from 19th-century tunics to modern dress, while talk about how to return regiments of horses and soldiers takes place amid helicopter drops of electrical equipment and bars of soap.
Robert Brill’s set supports the mixed message, turning the posh estate described by Shaw into a war-ravaged villa, just as Christina Haatainen’s costumes indicate a wealthy family undergoing privation.
In trying so hard to achieve timelessness, Peterson has emphasized its dated components and, worse, diverted attention from the substance of Shaw’s contentions. Starting with the punny title, GBS has great sport with the romantic views of love and war. But here his spoofery gets overwhelmed by the tomfoolery.
As the central antihero, a Swiss mercenary fighting with the Serbs, Mark Harelik shows an awareness that comic lines are best said with utmost sincerity, but he’s less successful with the dramatic. Cynthia Nixon has the right look and elegance for Raina, more in love with the adventure of war than its participants , but her ear-assaulting shriek sounds more for effect than credibility.
Strong in support are Sevanne Kassarjian as Louka, the spirited servant who’s the object of Saranoff’s dishonest attentions; Ivonne Coll as Raina’s mother; and Jan Triska as the poor servant dumped on by all those trying to protect their interests. Nevertheless, the Slavic accents of Coll and Triska, whether real or assumed, added to the confusion of elements.
Chris Kortum’s lighting is appropriate and evocative throughout; also helpful are Michael Roth’s music and sound, particularly the noises of war.