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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review

Arms and the Man
My first thought upon hearing that Bill Irwin would be unable to fulfill his commitment for WTF revival of Charles MacArthur's Johnny On the Spot was I hope they get Christopher Evan Welch. Irwin wisely brought Welch to New York (from Seattle) to play his sidekick in Scapin. It was in this role that I first discovered this young actor's terrific comedic and acting talent which encompasses that triple-threat combination of flawless timing, expressive body language and a voice capable of scaling the full emotional ladder. As Irwin was smart enough to spot Welch's talent, so the Roundabout wisely kept him in New York long enough to play in highly successful production of London Assurance. All this to explain why Welch struck me as a natural choice to play any part considered right for Irwin.

While James Naughton, no slouch in the comedic department himself, decided to double up as director and star for Johnny On the Spot, I did get my wish. You see Christopher Evan Welch has indeed made it to Williamstown's Main Stage, but as Sergius in the revival of Arms and the Man, which was Shaw's first "pleasant"play--an entertaining, fast-paced comedy drama that relates a brief and bloody battle between Bulgaria and Serbia (in 1885) to the consequences of a personal "battle" between an escaped soldier from the Serbian army and an overly romantic young Bulgarian noblewoman.

Under the direction of Barry Edelstein, this revival takes a strong turn in the direction of the high camp inherent in its setting and plot. All seven players are pushed towards exploiting the comic elements of their roles, with whatever's not expressly stated raised to the heights of hilarity in the way it's delivered; an excellent idea when you consider that the play, with its basically thin story, derives its strength from the bouncing wit of the dialogue. Even the stage props specified by Shaw are stretched to underscore this focus on comic excess.

Welch as the ridiculously courageous major and fiance of young Raina Petkoff (Jennifer Dundas), doesn't just rise to the occasion--he soars. His Sergius is a terrifically nuanced comic anti-hero. He only has to stand there to make you laugh. Yet, his Sergius is, as Shaw envisioned him, a man capable of self-awareness. Take his pompously amusing question when he romances Louka, a servant, (Rebecca Creskoff) after having declared himself an "apostle of higher love" to Raina--and his insightful soliloquy shortly thereafter:

"What would the half dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of this handsome figure of mine say if they caught us here?" When Louka bluntly tells him "I expect one of the six of you is very like me" he ruefully admits to himself "One of them (the six Sergiuses) is a hero, another a buffoon, another a humbug, another perhaps a bit of a blackguard--And one, at least, is a coward--jealous (of Raina's possible lover), like all cowards."

The reason I'm devoting all this space to Sergius-à-la-Welch is that the two starring; performers don't quite match his madcap spirit, thus turning his supporting role into the evening's gold chip asset. Like Welch, Jennifer Dundas plays her part for every comic nuance she can milk from it. Unfortunately, the effort is all too obvious and what should be funny is too often strained and flat The twenty-something actress, who gave a very convincing portrayal of a modern teenager in the well-received off-Broadway comedy-drama Good As New, comes off too one dimensional to be convincing as a 23-year-old whose exaggerated romanticism and mannerisms makes her seem much younger. As for Eric Stoltz, who stars as the at once practical and romantic Captain Bluntschli, he's handsome enough, and at times quite good. The scene where he tries to stay awake, for example, could have added a nice bit to the middle play of Donald Margulies' Broken Sleep (at WFT's Other Stage-our review). Too often, however, especially in the first act, he seems to be imitating the actor who plays brother Niles in the TV series Frasier. Fortunately Bluntschli as the prime character used to burst the bubble of military glory, gets to deliver some of the play's best bits of Shavian wit and wisdom to help him carry the day; to illustrate:

" There are only two sorts of soldiers: old ones and young ones. . .you can tell the young ones by their wildness and dashing. The old ones come bunched up under the number one guard; they know that they're mere projectiles and that it's no use trying to fight."

When Raina accuses Bluntschli of having a "low shopkeeping mind" his acquiescent "that's the Swiss national character" drew laughs unintended by Shaw (though he would surely have had strong opinions on the current Swiss bank account scandal).

As for the rest of the cast--Steven Gilborn is good as Major Petkoff, Rebecca Creskoff a fine outspoken Louka. Michael Gaston plays Nicola, the servant who's kept out of the army and who ends up ceding his claim as Louka's husband in order to have her as a customer of his future shop (as a rich man's wife). He is a believable embodiment of the playwright's ultimate satirical thrust at romantic notions of patriotism and honor. Deborah Rush is okay, but not extraordinarily so, as Mrs. Petkoff.

In the design department, Narelle Sissoons has contributed a splendid set which is quite true to Shaw's script directions--and also adds enough prop additions to accommodate Mr. Edelstein's focus on pushing the comedic envelope. Thus the picture of Sergio in Raina's bedroom includes a dramatic pull-back curtain and Major Petkoff's pipe stand becomes a sliding bookcase from which he can extract a quick drink. Kay Voyce's costumes and Rui Rita's lighting design complete the most attractive and effective production values.

Plays mentioned and reviewed at CurtainUp Good As New, Scapin, London Assurance.

By George Bernard Shaw's
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Starring Eric Stoltz and Jennifer Dundas
With Rebecca Creskoff, Michael Gaston, Steven Gilborn, Deborah Rush and Christopher Evan Welch
Main Stage/Williamstown Theatre Festival
Williamstown, MA
7/22/97 opening 7/23)-8/03/97

Some Background on Arms and the Man
The play first opened in London on April 21, 1894, 9 years after the Bulgarian cavalry charge against the invading Serbians which inspired it.

Shaw took his title from the first line of Vergil's Aeneid : "Arms and the man I sing--which thus serves as a satiric tag for the play's thrust against romanticizing courage under fire."

It was the first of what became known as Shaw's "pleasant" plays--as distinguished from his more serious "discussion" plays.

The initial run starred Richard Mansfield and Lillian McCarthy but the play was not a success until it's second time around, again in London after which it became one of Shaw's s most popular plays, both in professional and and kept alive with many amateur theater productions.
Other actors who have played Buntschli include Alfred Lunt (with Lynn Fontanne as Raina), Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardon.

The operatic, fantasy quality of the Bulgarian setting was not lost on Oscar Straus who in 1909 turned into an operetta, The Chocolate Soldier. Some of its memorable song include "My Hero", "The Chocolate Soldier" and "Falling in Love."

Shaw's many other writings include essays, drama and music criticsm, plays made into movies and stage plays--most notably Pygmalion-- (he strongly disapproved of the adaptation's romantic turn)-- which in turn became My Fair Lady. A revival of,Misalliance, written in 1909 is currently in previews at New York's Roundabout and will be reviewed at CurtainUp after its 8/13 opening.

Shaw was born in 1856 and died in 1950. Though he was married (to Charlotte Payne Townsend) and had several epistolary romances, it is rumored that he died a virgin.

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