Brynn Tucker and Mark Krawczyk star in the Constellation Theatre's Arms and the Man. Photograph by Scott Suchman
☆☆☆ ½ stars out of four
When the Nobel Committee for Literature awarded George Bernard Shaw his 1925 Peace Prize, they cited the playwright’s impressive body of work as being “marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.” That beauty can be felt in almost every aspect of Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Shaw’s 1894 Arms and the Man—now playing at Source, in a satisfying interpretation by Allison Arkell Stockman—from its capable cast’s comedic chops to its layered explorations of war, class, gender roles, and romantic ideals.
In the midst of the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885, reality, in the form of a frightened enemy soldier, crashes through idealistic Raina Petkoff’s notions of heroism and romance—and her bedroom window. His arrival sets in motion a chain of events that challenge the Victorian values Raina, her family, and her blowhard of a fiancé hold so dear. Shaw’s ability to expose folly through razor-sharp humor comes easily to actors who are perfectly in tune with one another. With all the cloying giddiness of a Disney princess, Amy Quiggins’s wide-eyed Raina packs a deceptively strong punch. As Sergius Saranoff, Raina’s smarmy, mustachioed husband-to-be, Mark Krawczyk delivers some of the show’s biggest laughs with his over-the-top physical presence. But it’s fiery maid Louka (a radiant Brynn Tucker) and the understated Captain Bluntschli (Michael John Casey) who convey the play’s most poignant messages.
The stark contrast drawn between the idolization of war’s glory and some of its decidedly inglorious truths echoes just as loudly in 21st-century Washington as it did in 19th-century Britain (and doubtless much earlier—the play’s title comes from the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid). The often-artificial pedestals on which notions of love, class, and gender are placed are chipped away at, as well, but in such a way that the action feels witty and insightful, never heavy.
There’s nothing particularly original or memorable about this production’s set, costumes, or staging (save a few nifty scene changes that involve massive, spinning set pieces). Actors are decked out in predictable period garb among proper old-fashioned furnishings, and original music, composed by Jesse Terrill, is effective but unremarkable. But the by-the-book approach keeps all the attention where it should be: on the performers, highlighting perfectly timed glances, biting observations cloaked in humor, and—in the case of Quiggins and Casey, especially—palpable tension and chemistry.
It’s no wonder Arms and the Man was Shaw’s first commercial success (years before the film version of his 1912 Pygmalion earned him an Academy Award and its musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, made him a household name). The combination of sharp satire and romantic comedy is crowd-pleasing to say the least. And Constellation’s production strikes a heartfelt balance that does the material justice.
Arms and the Man is at Source through November 20. Tickets ($20 to $40) are available through Constellation’s Web site.