Under the direction of Michael Murray, Glendale’s classical repertory theater company, A Noise Within, provides a sparkling production of George Bernard Shaw’s war satire, Arms and the Man, fully armed with charm and panache, dashing heroes and feisty damsels.
“Arma virumque cano,” or “Of arms and the man I sing,” was the opening phrase of Virgil’s Aeneid, yet while that epic poem sought to glorify traditional Roman values and tie the legends of Troy to Rome, Shaw’s Arms and the Man gives a nod to Virgil with its title and adds a sly wink. Shaw’s play is a satire that pokes fun at Victorian ideals that considered war both glorious and noble.
Shaw’s play was first published in 1898, decades after the infamous 1854 Charge of the Light Brigade. Led by Lord Cardigan during the Crimean War, it was a suicidal exploit best remembered now because of Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Set in the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, the play opens with the well-bred Raina (Dorothea Harahan) getting ready to go to sleep. Outside, sounds of war intrude. Inside, she has a portrait of her fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff (Mark Deakins). She and her mother hear news that Sergius has ignored orders and nobly dashed into the enemy lines. They celebrate his heroism.
As Raina is sleeping, an escaping mercenary, Bluntschli (Mikael Salazar) breaks into her room. After holding her at gunpoint, he convinces her first to feed him (chocolate creams being all she has to offer) and then to save him. Although she initially believes he’s a coward, she slowly changes her mind and her affections. Sergius isn’t left forlorn, but finds a more lusty and equally brash love with Raina’s maid (Abby Craden).
As Sergius, Deakins postures with deliciously dim though earnest facial expressions. Harahan delicately balances the trials of a young woman attempting to be “thrilling” and yet wishing to be normal, as her father, Mark Bramhall frowns, fidgets, and blusters. Major Paul Petkoff is obviously a man ill at ease with peace and domestic tranquility. Karen Tarleton as Raina’s mother is, like Salazar, basically a straight man, a sensible person amidst disorder. They play practical, capable people who don’t need war.
Today’s audience members are more likely to cringe at the thought of warring Serbs, with Bosnian Serb war criminals still being caught and tried, yet this cast quickly wins you over with their comedic timing, the stylish costumes by Julie Keen, and the sweeping pace Murray sets for his excellent cast. The romantic chemistry between Salazar and Harahan is sweet while that of Deakins and Craden smolders. After the happy endings, and even during this time when there is plenty of political posturing about war and heroes, Shaw’s message isn’t lost.
Arms and the Man, continues until May 20, playing in repertory at A Noise Within, at the Masonic Temple Building, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. $32-$36. Call (818) 240-0910, extension 1.