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Arms And The Man

Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Heather Violanti 
David Fuller ©2009 Timothy John McDonough and Tatiana Gomberg 

Theater Ten Ten’s ARMS AND THE MAN is a very pleasant production of one of Shaw’ pleasantest “Plays Pleasant.” The play is Shaw at his most entertaining and romantic, a disconcerting spoonful of sugar to make polemical medicine go down all the easier. Here, amidst a fairy tale romance set in a fictionalized 1880’s Bulgaria, Shaw throws in some trademark paradoxes: a pacifist war hero, an ingénue who’s slightly feminist, and a feisty maid who’s a one-woman Marxist revolution. Director Lean Bonvissuto approaches this forthright froth with a guarded mix of bitter and sweet. Sweet wins out in the end, but not without a nod toward this pleasant play’s deliberately unpleasant underpinnings. A bolder director might have done more bitter—there’s a darker undertow of desire and violence simmering beneath Shaw’s politeness that too often remains out of reach—but this revival is nonetheless excellent. It’s fiercely intelligent and funny, and well-played by a charismatic cast. 

In Shaw’s Never-Never-Land of a Bulgaria, an overly dramatic ingénue suddenly finds herself starring in a real life drama. Just as she’s about to drift to sleep in her bed one dark night, dreaming of her blustery fiancé, shots ring out. An enemy soldier comes crashing through her French windows. The soldier threatens to kill her, but she discovers he never carries bullets, only chocolate crèmes. As a result, these two strike up a friendship that veers dangerously close to romance. Along the way, the ingénue learns to grow up, and the soldier learns to let down his emotional guard. David Fuller ©2009 James Arden and Tatiana Gomberg. 

The ensemble, under Bonvissuto’s well-paced direction, play their parts with aplomb. As Raina, the brave and charming ingénue, Tatiana Gomberg sparkles with an incandescence that never descends into cloyingness. As Captain Bluntschli, the soldier, James Arden makes a credibly earnest suitor and bemused straight man to the play’s eccentrics. True, Raina and Bluntschli’s first encounter doesn’t quite generate the romantic heat it could, and Bluntschli’s war-weariness could be more impassioned. Nevertheless, Gomberg and Arden create fully-rounded characters out of roles that could easily become caricatures. 

Ramona Floyd is memorably flighty and flirty as Raina’s mother, Catherine, while Mickey Ryan brings suitable gravitas to the Major, Raina’s father. As the pompous and lecherous Sergius Saranoff, Raina’s original fiancé, Timothy John McDonough channels William Shatner by way of John Cleese. Scott Michael Morales gives the role of Nicola the devoted servant a prideful pragmatism that’s both heartbreaking and ridiculous. Watch him walk into or out of the room, marching like a show pony in his “perfect servant” gait, stealing the scene in his wake. 

Sheila Joons makes an earthy, assertive Louka, the lusty maid who refuses to be put in her place. Louka’s illicit encounters with Sergius are among the play’s most charged scenes. Here, Shaw’s almost Strindbergian in the way he underscores desire with violence. In these moments, Joons imbues Louka’s seductiveness with a steely determination that can be as chilling as it is charming. McDonough manages to be both cartoonish and scary, all arrogance and lust. Their scenes together are intentionally uncomfortable and compelling, funny and sad—a hint of what the whole production might have been, had it consistently found the passion beneath the candy-coated surface. 

Still, Bonvissuto punctuates Shaw’s seriousness with lively physicality. The final third of the show, which could easily descend into staid argument, bursts with energy. During one memorable moment, Raina and Sergius, mutually exasperated with each other, mirror each other’s grumbling perfectly, and sit down at the same time, with the exact same pout. 

Bonvissuto directs the entire play in a small, rectangular playing area, surrounded on three sides by the audience. The audience sits on stage along the actors, rather than in the cavernous church hall beyond. This instantly creates a sense of intimacy, even if it creates some weird, echo-y acoustics. Using the small space to its upmost, set designer David Fuller cleverly suggests the play’s lush locations with some muslin, a chaise lounge, and the strategic placing of iron chairs. Costume designer Mira Veikley does wonders with crisp white blouses, shawls, skirts, and military jackets to create a sense of period opulence on a small budget. 

In all, Theater Ten Ten concocts a sumptuous Shavian confection with this production of ARMS AND THE MAN. Ingenious and genuinely heartfelt, brimming with easy charm, ARMS AND THE MAN makes a compelling argument for Theater Ten Ten’s reputation for producing quality classics on a shoestring. 

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