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If George Bernard Shaw is known for anything, it’s wit and wisdom. This is the Brit who gave Bartlett’s quips like “Lack of money is the root of all evil” and “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” Many of his zingers first appeared in his plays, so one might assume, given his frequent emphasis of wordsmithery over storytelling, that Shaw’s scripts can be easily staged in a tiny theater on a shoestring budget.
They often can’t, and Constellation Theatre’s production of Arms and the Man makes plain the challenges: These outsized characters who say outlandishly funny things are not the sort of people you want to share your personal space with. Take Raina, the irrepressibly romantic heroine, as played by the perpetually wide-eyed Amy Quiggins. Seen on a proscenium stage from 50 feet away, she might seem spot-on. Viewed from 10 feet away at Source, you may want to bonk her on that adorable little head and beg her to start the play over—this time with more subtlety, please.
Exaggerated, imprecise acting is a barrier to enjoying this production, directed by Allison Arkwell Stockman. Some press-night line flubs will surely be corrected, but you’re still left with a show that’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, which is exactly what a Shaw comedy should be.
The play opens with Raina in her dressing gown, dreaming of her fiancé Sergius, who is away fighting in the Serbo-Bulgarian War. Suddenly there’s a round of gunfire outside, followed by one of the best inciting incidents in the theatrical canon: To provide a romantic rival, Shaw has a sabre-wielding soldier from the opposing army climb up the balcony and burst through the shutters into Raina’s bedroom. If she screams, he’ll shoot her. If not, well, he might just stick around for the rest of the play.
When it debuted in 1894, Arms was Shaw’s first big hit. Two world wars later, his farcical treatment of armed conflict doesn’t go down easy in any theater. (A successful production I once saw at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, interpreted the play as a fairy tale.) Constellation is going for realism, however, and the design team worked hard on moveable sets that consume half of the 120-seat theater.
Michael John Casey, as the fleeing soldier Captain Bluntschli, is the subtlest actor of the bunch. Ideally he and Quiggins would elicit more chemistry, but otherwise he effectively plays the smartest character onstage. By contrast, Sergius (Mark Krawczyk) is a bumbling idiot any way you cast him. Maybe Stockman can’t control who ends up with whom, but she should try to avoid marrying her characters off to abusive cretins. Krawczyk’s eyes are bloodshot from his first scene, and when he yanks the insouciant maid Louka (Brynn Tucker) into his arms, he grips her biceps so tightly that he leaves a bruise, which is played up later. This is not consensual S&M, nor is it the edgy upstairs/downstairs flirtation Shaw intended.
Sergius’ deplorable actions are delineated in the script, but so is his apology, which rings insincere here. The scene is doubly disturbing when interpreted so literally, in such close quarters. Amping up the awkwardness, vapid Viennese Muzak underscores this and other “romantic” encounters.
The play is full of Shaw’s romantic aphorisms. “What faithless creatures girls are,” Raina opines to her mother, before Bluntschli even climbs up the balcony. And later, her philandering fiancé tells Louka, “I may be worthless enough to betray the higher love, but I do not insult it.”
For lines like those to resonate, the acting and direction must be built to scale. Constellation and other small D.C. companies are certainly capable of putting on quality productions of the classics. Unfortunately, in this particular war of earnest wit versus over-earnest acting, the audience loses out.