Shaw's early farce on war and society gets a broadly comic production at the Guthrie. It's pleasant enough, but doesn't seem likely to linger in head or heart.
Expectation and energy hung in the air last fall as the Guthrie Theater staged "The 39 Steps." Here was a celebrated piece that had danced around Broadway for more than a year and if "urgent" is not the right word, the occasion seemed buoyant and lively. How would the Hitchcock thriller stand up to ridicule? Quite well, actually.
That sensation of fresh discovery is not always possible, of course, and this might be why "Arms and the Man," which opened Friday on the same proscenium stage, has a quaint patina by comparison. Ethan McSweeny's production stretches the natural farce in Shaw's spoof of war and social class -- sometimes too far but mostly to good effect. Everything looks great, but whatever feelings the piece evokes soon fade. It's a nice, tidy evening of theater.
McSweeny and set designer Walt Spangler have created an appealing container. The proscenium is turned into a Tyrolean jewel box with miniature toy soldiers arrayed along the stage front. As the curtain rises, Raina Petkoff's bedroom sits in the midst of a starry night and snowcapped mountains.
Raina is the daughter of Major Paul Petkoff, who is off fighting the Serbo-Bulgarian war. Mariko Nakasone gives this delicate creature a fine sense of regal insolence befitting her privilege.
Then, a Serbian partisan stumbles into her room seeking refuge from the fray. Jim Lichtscheidl's Captain Bluntschli is war weary yet worldly enough to smile at Raina's naive arrogance about war. After all, her fiancé led the charge that forced Bluntschli's flight.
At war's end, Major Petkoff returns home in the jolly and dotty visage of Peter Michael Goetz. His broad buffoonery is only outdone by Michael Shantz's Sergius Saranoff, the officer who was courageous (stupid?) enough to lead the charge against the Serbs.
Bluntschli returns to the Petkoff home (to return a coat Raina lent him). Shaw then uses romance to tear down the notion of status, with Saranoff stooping to romance the pouty maid Louka, played with spine and sass by Summer Hagen, and Raina falling for Bluntschli -- a mercenary who we believe to be below her station.
McSweeny's production holds the proper tension between Lichtscheidl's well-articulated Bluntschli and the whole Bulgarian gaggle of softheaded bourgeoisie. At times the exaggeration is just right, as when Nakasone's Raina swoons onto a fainting couch after being forced to tell a lie. In other moments, though, the actors' self awareness -- and awareness of the audience -- diminishes rather than heightens the ridiculous farce.
Murrell Horton's costumes are lovely -- even when expressed in Bluntschli's raggedy uniform. Time passes pleasantly enough, but on the walk home we feel we were merely entertained by an old-fashioned comedy. Others can judge for themselves whether that is sufficient.