Just how sweet and honorable is it to go to die for one’s country? George Bernard Shaw looked askance at such romantic notions in Arms and the Man, which tells of how war-dazzled young Raina falls for enemy soldier Captain Bluntschli, a jaded, pragmatic soldier-for-hire. Pie Man Theatre Company presents the classic comedy at Mayo Street Arts, under the direction of Stephanie Ross.
Staged intimately in the round, the show opens in the bedroom of well-off Raina (Emily Grotz), who marvels with her mother (Patricia Mew) over the military braveries of her beloved Sergius. Later, alone, she has a gun pointed at her by Bluntschli (Joshua Brassard), a Swiss soldier fighting for the Serbs, who is looking for a place to hide. She mocks his lack of soldierly grandeur; he mocks her syrupy naivete. Yet Raina decides to help him, and despite — or because of — the two’s quite unromantic squabbling, something between them is lit.
Grotz’s Raina has an expressive heart-shaped face and long, graceful limbs, and her every sinew moves in service of the high-flown. She’s supple and sonorous as she thrills and declaims, and her mellifluous, glamorous indignation at Bluntschli contrasts nicely with Brassard’s haggard stooping, his gaze and voice seem to hold ache and scraped exhaustion both physical and spiritual. In their crucial first scene together, they make high, vividly rancorous sport of their mutual exasperation. I’d like to see more of the moment — granted, a fleeting one — when she decides to risk hiding him.
The next day, Sergius returns to Raina from battle, and Cameron Foley gives him the smarmy self-righteous swagger of a bantam cock as he panders to Raina’s mother and father (Howard Rosenfield). But later, as he comes on to the cynical maid Louka (Allison Kelly), he shows his real, lecherous self, and Foley shifts gears admirably, bringing the volume down and the valance up. In Kelly’s hands, Louka poses a bewitchingly dark, subtle foil to Raina’s bright posturing, with her disdainful sidelong second looks and infinitesimal sneers. She scorns her fiancé, fellow servant Nicola (Kyle Aarons, who gives the servant’s priggishness a sympathetic dignity), but also shows an interesting ambivalence when he finally releases her to her higher aspirations.
Pie Man’s production design gestures at the 19th-century period and its stations, but also contains a few odd anachronistic touches. Raina’s father’s jacket — red velvet, many-zippered — seems plucked from the 1970s; a scene furnished with upper-class wicker inexplicably finds the table set with suburban-style plastic cups — maybe a nod at the provincialism of these self-regarding “sophisticates,” but still a little puzzling. Director Ross also makes a few cute slapstick comic strokes, with a big teddy bear, that perhaps overshoot Shaw’s comedic flavor.
But Shaw’s comedy is certainly big and full of bombast, and the show excels at this. What we might see a touch more of is the lower, more knowing levels, the cracks in the bombast. We see it in Louka’s scenes with Sergius, played deliciously low and dirty, and Grotz does drop what Bluntschli calls Raina’s “thrilling voice” when it counts, at the climax. I’d love to see a few hints of the real Raina even before then, a few more little glimpses of how his candor beguiles her before she understands why.
Like Raina, we surely feel the most ardor for the lover who sees through our bullshit and calls us on it. Perhaps love of country, at its finest, is no less clear-eyed? Suffice it to say that Shaw’s critique isn’t ready for the dustbin just yet.
Arms and the Man, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Stephanie Ross. Produced by Pie Man Theatre Company | through February 26 at Mayo Street Arts, 10 Mayo St., Portland | www.piemantheatre.org