Two lines of script illuminate director Jackie Maxwell’s choices for the overall tenor and tone of Shaw’s Arms and The Man:
Louka. When you set up shop you will only be everybody’s servant instead of somebody’s servant. … Sergius. Life’s a farce.
Louka’s savvy social-commentary and insights challenge the mind and—for some—strongly held beliefs. On opening night, it slipped by barely noticed. The brief utterance from Sergius heralds the silly and ridiculous (unless the annotation “cynically” is faithfully observed), but ignited brandy-fuelled guffaws from the formally attired, sponsor-rich crowd in the Festival Theatre.
So which is it?
Well, er, both!
Act I begins promisingly enough. Raina Petkoff (Diana Donnelly, too fast in the early going, but soon finds her delivery rhythm) blushes with upper-class pride as her flaky mother (Nora McLellan, eager as can be and positively salivating for the electric-bell gag several scenes hence) delivers the happy news that her daughter’s fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff (Mike Shara) has disobeyed orders of his Russian masters and led his troops into a surprising victory over the ill-equipped Serbs and Austrians—seems the ammunition for their artillery was the wrong gauge. Only defensive interventions by Canada’s Sea King helicopters could have sealed the victory faster.
Then, before you can say “Hark! What enemy through yonder window breaks,” Captain Bluntschli (Patrick Galligan, hands-down the brightest, most consistent star on the stage—barely looking a lustrum over his “announced” thirty-four years) hoists himself over the balcony (Raina and family are proud Bulgarians, ever-ready to risk life and limb when forced by stronger allies) and into the arms of his adversary’s beautiful daughter.
No worries: he’s Swiss—a soldier-for-hire, pragmatic to the core (“It is our duty to live as long as we can.”) without an ounce of the superficial idealism (defined by Shaw as “only a flattering name for romance in politics and morals”) that oozes from the Petkoff coat of charms. It’s no coincidence that Bluntschli hails from the land of neutrality and is fed chocolate creams by his oh-so-hospitable hostess. With more comic irony than Haydn’s modulation-by-silent-bars, the early goings-on drew a few knowing chuckles but little collective marvel at the playwright’s brilliant wit. It took the exhausted soldier’s literal (and wonderfully hilarious) falling into sleep to provoke the first belly laugh from the storied crowd.
Act II opens with a servant dialogue. Nicola (Peter Millard, picture perfect, but still ramping up his timing and lines) looks forward to the unforeseeable day of his own shop and a family life. Louka (Catherine McGregor, Carmen-like, to be sure, yet favours gesture and expression over deftly understated pronouncements, “You’ll never put the soul of a servant into me.”) plans to barter her way to a better life utilizing the plentiful supply of family secrets that she’s discovered, but takes a bruising at the hand of a lover-beyond-her-station even as she tries to rise above hers. Her assailant, of course, is the campaign “hero,” groom-to-be Sergius. From his first entry to the final curtain, Maxwell takes advantage of Shara’s impressive looks and skills, having him pose, posture and mug his way into the funny bones of the assemblage. He howls, squeaks and “pshas” with glee, but in the process pulls the production miles away from sophisticated commentary and into the realm of second-tier melodrama.
He’s not alone. Peter Hutt’s portrait of Major Paul Petkoff elicits many yuks but few zingers. The unravelling of lie after lie, the “Whose coat is it anyway?” follies stirred up with “What the butlers saw” makes for much merriment but fails to plumb the satiric depths of Shaw’s incredible understanding of the classes, the inanity of war and sexual subtext. The revelation that Bluntschli’s revolver would only have shot blanks (echoing the impotent ammunition of his rival on the battlefield) in the bedroom of the voluptuous Raina was rendered and accepted as a “just so” news item on the parliamentary channel.
The script’s careful set-up of the “only library in Bulgaria” (at one with the recent Buffalo production of All the Great Books (abridged)—cross-reference below, was surprisingly shunned by set designer Sue LePage’s otherwise resplendent recreations of the Petkoff Manor.
By the time various relationships are sorted out, truncated or about to begin—and the enthusiastic applause dies down—the moment of reflection on the fine meal just devoured comes to no firm conclusion as to the amount of tip that ought be left. Seasoned devotees and newcomers alike are invited to wind their way to Niagara-on-the-Lake, order the prix fixe and decide for themselves. JWR