BWW Review: ARMS & THE MAN at Seattle Shakespeare
Seattle Shakespeare's ARMS & THE MAN visits the past and finds the present. With wit, humor, and richness of production, the show presents a classic tale of a chance encounter that changes everything. From the pithy dialogue to the talented cast, Seattle Shakespeare has chosen well for its second show of the season.
The story centers on Raina Petkoff who is eagerly awaiting news of her fiancé and her father who are both fighting in the Bulgarian Army against the Serbians. The action comes close to their family home as the Serbs are retreating. A Swiss mercenary officer fighting for the Serbs climbs into Raina's window in order to avoid capture. Captain Bluntschli informs her that he prefers chocolates to bullets, and Raina is taken with the weary officer. She and her mother hide the captain and help him escape wearing an old coat of Raina's father. After a peace treaty is signed, her fiancé, Sergius, and her father return home with stories of a Swiss officer that oversaw the prisoner exchange. Bluntschli also returns with the borrowed coat, and is immediately recognized by Sergius and Raina's father. Declarations are made, maneuvers calculated, and true colors revealed.
The lavish and rich scenic design by Julia Hayes Welch envelopes every available inch of the stage. Three different vantages of the grand Petkoff house appear, one in each act. They are flanked by a backdrop of the Balkan mountains. The costumes are impeccable with great detail in every part. Designer Joselyne Fowler covers an array of styles. The servants wear traditional Bulgarian garb. The ladies of the house wear the latest fashions from Vienna, and the men strut about in military uniforms complete with all the decorations and finery. Lighting design by Tristan Roberson was superb. Early scenes that required near darkness were carefully crafted to give the appropriate mood while still allowing the audience to see. The subtle lighting added or subtracted when candles were lit and extinguished was excellent. The lighting truly enhanced the show without overpowering it.
The cast of ARMS &THE MAN was superb from top to bottom. Allen Fitzpatrick as the affable Major Petkoff was a blend of blend of boasting military leader and demurred husband. Jonelle Jordan provided a fiery Louka who was ready for a life beyond servitude. George Mount was delightful as the quick-thinking, servant-hearted Nicola. Richard Nguyen Sloniker's Sergius provided the comedic relief.
His over-the-top affectations and mannerisms projected his privileged pedigree that had boosted him in life despite his rather empty head. S.F. Kamara and Captain Bluntschli or the Chocolate Cream Soldier was all smoothness and heart. Well, almost, there were a few line trip ups, but I trust that with a few shows past, he will continue to dazzle with his charming smile and trusting eyes that made him so believable as someone to instantly like. Brenda Joyner as Raina Petkoff plays her role with many layers. Raina is as much saddled by her class and its inherent expectations as Louka. Joyner shows us how she is more than just her position in life. Suzy Hunt as as Raina's mother, Catherine Petkoff was undoubtedly my favorite. Her performance peppered with arched eyebrows, hand gestures, and inflections made her character the most interesting of them all. Her command of the dialogue was so strong that every word seemed to generate from her own center and never from memory. Together the cast blended into a wonderful ensemble that played off each other very well. David Armstrong's direction moved them about in ways that were both interesting and entertaining without ever being contrived. Indeed, his vision with the show must be very close to the author's original intent.
ARMS & THE MAN is a fun night of theater. The story while formulaic still holds truths for us today. In fact, that is probably the only downside of the show. It reminds us that class distinctions still play a major role in society's perceived value of each individual and what we believe they deserve. While Raina may have fallen in love with Bluntschli when he was only a chocolate cream soldier, her parents were only delighted by the attachment when they learned of his inheritance. Sergius's ineptitude and absurdity was overlooked simply because of his station in life. In the era of reality tv, we know all too well that you can become famous and command great social power simply because of your personal wealth or inherited wealth. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw, a known socialist, was hoping that his audiences would see that genuine affection from a chance encounter is worth more than the arranged pairing of social equals. Regardless of what you take away from the show, Seattle Shakespeare's production reminds us why it is a classic.
ARMS & THE MAN is playing at Center Theatre through November 18th. For tickets or more information, visit seattleshakespeare.org.