Review: ‘Arms and the Man’

Long Wharf acting a.d. Greg Leaming has opted for a comicstrip approach that turns the play into a raucous, ear-splitting farce and grinds down its satirical teeth.

By design or coincidence, both of New Haven’s resident nonprofit theaters opened their seasons with one of Shaw’s four pleasant plays. Unfortunately Long Wharf’s production of the first, “Arms and the Man,” isn’t up to the level of Yale Rep’s staging of the last, “You Never Can Tell.” Long Wharf acting a.d. Greg Leaming has opted for a comicstrip approach that turns the play into a raucous, ear-splitting farce and grinds down its satirical teeth.

One of the few actors who doesn’t shout is Mark Nelson as Captain Bluntschli, Shaw’s chocolate cream soldier. But his enlightened approach works against him: The ear has to readjust to his lower-key reading amid the prevailing noise.

Sarah Knowlton’s Raina is particularly offensive in the shouting department; she seems to think that a “thrilling” voice is one hurled out at the top of her lungs. It’s a pity, because she has the talent for a fine Raina.

Shaw’s satirical look at heroic posturing and the glamorization of war is still potent. Bluntschli, the Swiss soldier with no illusions, is the real hero, and Raina’s fiance Sergius (overplayed by Patrick Page) is the “heroic” fool. The play abounds with hints of later Shaw plays. In the role of Raina’s maid Louka, who prefigures Eliza Doolittle, Dana Slamp is too blatantly insolent.

The painted Bulgarian sets and gaudy costumes, which seem to be parodying 19th century operetta productions, are overly busy, culminating in Raina’s unfortunate shocking-pink final costume. Costume designer Angelina Avallone has, however, given Raina a wonderful floor-length fur cape, and Sergius, most amusingly, a green uniform covered with so much gold braid that he looks like a Christmas tree.

Leaming has opted to use a pointless mixture of music, starting with the old pop song “Blue Moon” (there’s a huge white moon outside Raina’s bedroom balcony window) and then calling on orchestral and chorus snippets from operas by Massenet and Gounod.

Arms and the Man

Long Wharf Theater, New Haven, Conn.; 487 seats; $45 top

Production

A Long Wharf Theater presentation of the play by George Bernard Shaw in two acts. Directed by Greg Leaming.

Creative

Sets, Judy Gailen; costumes, Angelina Avallone; lighting, Jane Cox; sound, Robert Murphy; voice/text consultant, Deborah Hecht; production stage manager, Kevin E. Thompson. Opened, reviewed Sept. 28, 2001. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.

Cast

Raina Petkoff - Sarah Knowlton
Catherine Petkoff - Elaine Bromka
Louka - Dana Slamp
Captain Bluntschli - Mark Nelson
Russian Officer, Nicola - Daniel Pearce
Major Paul Petkoff - Philip LeStrange
Major Sergius Saranoff - Patrick Page
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