Mainstage “Arms and the Man” Review

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Photo by Dolores Mihaliak

Described as an “anti-romantic comedy” by its author, George Bernard Shaw, the play “Arms and the Man” sets the charm of a British drawing room comedy against the backdrop of a war that happens to be Bulgarian. 

The production was directed by drama professor and department head Professor Stefan Novinski with a small cast made almost entirely of drama majors. The plot follows the well-to-do Bulgarian Petkoff family and the soldiers and servants who interact with them. 

The first act begins in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Ann Urbanski) as she learns from her mother, Catherine Petkoff (Dolores Mihaliak) that her fiance, Sergius (Robert Baxley), has just lead a victorious attack against the Serbians. Elated but mindful of the danger of Serbian fugitives, the women retire for the evening. 

When an enemy soldier (Paul Bond)takes refuge in her room, Raina’s romantic ideas from novels and operas are realized, and she and her mother grant the soldier protection. 

The second act brings the end of the war and the return of Raina’s father, Major Petkoff (Sam Chiodo), and Sergius. A surprise visitor and the realization that everyone’s intentions are not what they seem to be create complications that must be untangled in the third act.

Shaw’s play asks, “What’s the proper life to lead? What’s the good life?” according to Novinski. “It goes all the way back to these root UD questions, in a play that many people characterize as light and frivolous, when really it’s a play about trying to discover yourself.” 

Marriage and honor are important themes in the show. It also focuses on the contrast of the “romantic with the real,” according to Novinski. 

For example, Bluntschli’s pragmatic, grounded sensibilities contrast with the heroic ideals of Sergius and the bumblings of Major Petkoff. 

This contrast is visually represented in the first act as the soft, pastel world of Raina’s bedroom is disrupted by the entrance of dirty Bluntschli and later a Russian soldier (Peter Shanley) both wearing dark colors and carrying weapons. 

Interestingly, themes of dropping pretenses and understanding honor are explored in a play made up of rather stereotypical characters. 

“Professor Cox liked to point out that it’s a commedia dell’arte play,” Novinski said. Commedia dell’arte is an early form of Italian theater that relied on stock characters. 

“There’s a braggart soldier … there’s innamorati (Italian for lovers), there’s a saucy serving maid but there’s also a saucy serving man,” Novinksi said.

Ann Urbanski, in the role of the ingénue, meaning an innocent young woman, holds herself like a princess and commands the stage with her poise. 

Louka (Bernadette Roden), fulfills the “saucy serving maid trope” and with every swish of her skirt and tilt of her head she exudes attitude, often directed at the straight faced servant Nicola (John Muncy). 

Also striking on stage is Sam Chiodo’s fatherly character, Major Petkoff, who is made even more paternal by Chiodo’s shaved head. 

“I was pretty fine with it, it’ll grow back,” Chiodo said. “[It] still freaked me out a little bit. When I look in the mirror in both my actual uniform and the costume for the third act, I just feel so much older.”  

Despite the change of performance space from the Margaret Jonsson Theater the set is beautiful crafted. It transitions with ease from bedroom to patio to library. 

The costumes offer layers of color and rich patterns taken from traditional Bulgarian dress.

“It’s a story book… and so everything has to look like it could be an illustration out of a story,” said Professor Susan Cox, manager of the costume shop. Raina’s first entrance onto a blue lit stage certainly seems straight out of a fairy tale.

“Arms and the Man,” running until Nov. 9, is a charming comedy that surprises the audience with its realness. Everyone should take the time to get to know the Petkoff family.

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