Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
At: ShawChicago at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 East Randolph Street
Tickets: free, reserv. recommended
Runs through: May 18
by Mary Shen Barnidge
Essayists frequently expound their ideas in form of a dialogue—Plato, for example—but dialogue alone is not a play, which requires a story. And so one often finds dazzling eloquence conscripted in service of plots pulled straight from farce ( Cf. Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest ) . But George Bernard Shaw was articulate as well as witty, his satirical observations on the society of his time steeped in serious purpose and shrewd insight. And in Arms And The Man, the flimsiest of premises supplies the foundation for the author's insightful comments on the economics of war and peace.
It is 1885, the Serbs and Bulgarians are—yawn—fighting, and Miss Raina Petkoff, daughter of the Bulgarian army's commander, thrills to news of martial glory—in particular the heroic deeds of her fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff. Her romantic fantasies are shaken, however, when a Swiss mercenary fleeing the enemy takes refuge on her balcony, during which he apprises her of some facts—that death is no honor and survival no disgrace, that war may be hell but is more often simply absurd, and that her champion's courageous cavalry charge and regiment's subsequent victory was purely accidental. Her education continues after the war, with the idealized love she shares with Sergius likewise exposed as a sham and Captain Bluntschli, the former fugitive, proving himself a man of singular acumen.
The conventions of chamber reading—in which actors in contemporary dress read from stationary scripts—are perfectly suited to this War of Words. Relieved of the stage business mandated by a full production, the ShawChicago ensemble is free to savor such Shavianisms as "It is [ a soldier's ] duty to live for as long as he can" and "If pity is akin to love, then gratitude is akin to the other thing."
And savor them they do—in particular, Steve Cardamone's urbane Bluntschli and Amanda Pajer's impetuous Raina, who, even facing front at all times, generate a chemistry that fairly crackles in the air. Karen Woditsch as Louka, the servant bent on marrying up, and Terence Gallagher as Sergius, the nobleman bent on marrying down, have their moments, as do Jacqueline Renee Jones and Tony Dobrowolski as Raina's befuddled parents, with Matthew Penn bringing up the rear as Nicola, the phlegmatic butler. Under Robert Scogin's' able direction, they paint a vivid picture of courtship, both national and domestic, no less affectionate for being based in candor and not charade.