Playing It for Laughs

When George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man in 1894, he was known as an arts critic and revolutionary rather than as a dramatist. However, in his railing against the hypocrisy of Victorian theater, Shaw saw that if he wanted something better, he'd best write it himself -- thus resulted Arms and the Man, a sardonic comedy about the pretensions of war, love and upward mobility. To stage their production of Arms, the Alley Theatre has brought in Shaw specialist Jerome Kilty -- author of the charming Dear Liar, a two-person play about the passionate correspondence between Shaw and actress Patricia Campbell -- who has mounted the playwright's satire as a high-spirited, breakneck romp. He tumbles the audience out of its seats -- no intermission in this runaway horse of a production -- a scant two hours after they've taken them. Under Kilty's direction, the comedy is broad, the pace burlesque and the evening pleasant, if occasionally rather puzzling.

Houston audiences haven't seen much Shaw recently. During former artistic director Nina Vance's reign the Alley staged Shaw regularly, but the last Shaw to be seen on an Alley stage was 1979's Don Juan in Hell. Main Street Theatre has done only one Shaw in the past decade; Stages and The Ensemble haven't done any. Up until two years ago, Houston did have the remarkable Shaw festival, staged annually by the theater department of the University of Houston at Clear Lake, but the university had to ring the curtain down on both festival and department due to financial constraints.

So in the Alley's reseizing of Shaw, it's rather charming -- and also a bit curious -- that they picked what was his first play of any note. The 38-year-old Shaw wrote Arms and the Man in three weeks as a favor to a friend who needed to fill a hole in her theater's season calendar. Although not exactly an unmitigated success (the Prince of Wales said whoever wrote it must be mad), Arms was Shaw's most substantial foray into drama to date, and persuaded him to turn at least some of his prodigious and passionate talents toward the stage.

Arms is a work of its times, insofar as it twists and plays with the conventions and plots of the Victorian era; it makes the leap forward a century with mixed success. The story, set in a fanciful and unreal Bulgaria, is one that would have been familiar to Shaw's original audience: that of a lady who aids an enemy soldier, who later returns to woo her away from her local swain. The heroine, Raina, is engaged to Sergius, who has just led a gloriously successful cavalry charge against the Serbs. Raina is gushing with rapture over her lover's exploits when Bluntschli, a refugee soldier taking flight from said cavalry charge, bursts into her chamber. (Apparently, the chambers of ladies in plays were being constantly broken into by enemy soldiers, which may account for Raina's cool-headedness.) The love triangle ensues. Then a second love triangle ensues, between Sergius, an independent-minded serving-girl named Louka and the pragmatic servant Nikola. Raina's parents are bemused spectators.

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While Shaw's medium here is comedy, the issues he strikes at are often serious, even tragic. His chief sport is lampooning romanticism: in love, in war and in bourgeois aspirations to refinement. Shaw has Raina and Sergius pronounce their love like a Tristan and Isolde, striking poses and speaking in noble tones, while confiding in private how tedious they find the entire exercise. War is portrayed as a silly, tragic mess and soldiering a grubby, pragmatic profession -- a notion that clashes brassily with the glorious notions of Raina and her family.

Shaw's satire also seems to have some nationalistic overtones that modern audiences can have trouble ferreting out. "Bulgarians of really good standing -- people in our position -- wash their hands nearly every day," Raina announces imperiously. Why Bulgarians? Shaw disingenuously claimed that he picked the Serbo-Bulgarian war as his backdrop almost randomly: "I looked up Bulgaria and Serbia in an atlas, made all the names of the characters end in 'off' and the play was complete." So are the absurdist Balkan costumes and slags at the Bulgarian aristocrats all in the name of sheer goofiness? Or is there more? At the Alley, it's a puzzlement.

But whatever losses in comprehension accrue due to lack of historical context, they're more than made up by Shaw's divertingly delightful dialogue. Shaw categorized his first plays as "unpleasant" and "pleasant"; Arms is definitely in the latter camp, and the Alley production plays up this frolic. From moment one, when Raina is gushing and moaning about the moon, director Kilty opts for a broad, even farcical, interpretation. But in the headlong rush of rather exaggerated oration, we sometimes lose the subtler lines, such as when Raina expresses concern to her mother for enemy refugees, or when she confesses that she'd worried whether all Sergius' "heroic qualities and ... soldiership might not prove mere imagination when he went into a real battle." The script walks a wavering line between spoof and seriousness, and the Alley's production walks an equally wavering line.

Set and costume designer Robert Fletcher makes Kilter's intermissionless production possible by mounting the stage on a marvelously designed lazy Susan. When Act One is over, the stage rotates 180 degrees for the set of Act Two. Act Two dispensed with, the wheel turns again and we get the set for Act Three -- an especially wondrous feat given that the elaborately rococo set from the first act has to be dismantled and replaced with Act Three's pseudo-Balkan scenery even as the play progresses. In costuming, Fletcher (who designed the outfits for the first four Star Trek movies) plays with the same imaginative eccentricity -- for example, putting the fetching Louka in a Wonderbra-esque peasant dress while giving her red-and-white striped stockings reminiscent of those worn by the Wicked Witch of the North right before her toes curled up.

Kilter's spirited pace, and Shaw's elaborate lines, give the actors a workout, to which they prove equal; I especially admire the women, who have to manage their twittering and swooping while under the restraints of strict corsets. Making her Alley debut as Raina, Vivienne Benesch has a Laura Dern look and proves a lively and likable spoiled little rich girl, unafraid as an actress to sacrifice beauty for comedy, although she may have suffered most from the production's buffoonish interpretation. With her distinctive toffee-stuck-to-the-roof-of-the-mouth voice, diminutive Deanna Dunmyer is so spirited as the saucy servant girl Louka that by play's end the very sound of her character's name seems to embody a tantalizing and impish sexiness.

Simon Billig -- also making his Alley debut -- is an endearing, clownish fop as Sergius. His figure is so ludicrously dashing that his very entrance, in a silly one-shoulder fur cape and vainly tight soldier's trousers, makes for one of the play's high points of hilarity. Jeffrey Bean plays Captain Bluntschli, the soldier in distress, as an appealing straight man, although his character as written gets rather washed out after he returns to the scene of his rescue. Rutherford Craven's unctuous Nikola doesn't go much beyond his portly presence and absurd outfitting, nor does he need to, with his ethnic costume, leather gaiters and -- a truly Dadaesque touch -- half-shaved head and red headband like a Samurai warrior.

By going for the laughs, the Alley has left some of Shaw's deeper content by the wayside. Shaw wrote, "When a comedy of mine is performed, it is nothing to me that the spectators laugh -- any fool can make an audience laugh. I want to see how many of them, laughing or grave, have tears in their eyes. And this result cannot be achieved ... [without] an arduous practice and effort which my plays probably do not seem serious enough to call forth." With their broad and popular rendering of Arms, the Alley has produced a deft and enjoyable comedy. Perhaps future Shavian forays will go further, and leaven the high jinks with something that can draw forth those tears.

Arms and the Man plays through April 15 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-9341.

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