(Left) Craig Marker as Bluntschi & Maggie Mason as Raina, (Right) Gabe Marin as Sergius & Kendra Lee Oberhauser as Louka in CenterRep's Arms and The Man.

ARMS AND THE MAN: Comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Nancy Carlin. Center REPertory Company, Lesher Center for the Arts, Margaret Lesher Theatre, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA. (925)943-SHOW (7469) or Through February 25, 2012.


Once again CenterRep in Walnut Creek has come up with a dazzling, gorgeous, hysterical and impressive production that surely will have an extended run but just in case it doesn’t get your tickets now. Would you believe the list of adjectives describing the show is for a George Bernard Shaw play? Dazzling, gorgeous, hysterical? You had better believe it.

Shaw is notorious for being long winded and preachy with his plays often lasting up to three hours. CenterRep under the guidance of Artistic Director Michael Butler and the astute direction of multi-award winning Nancy Carlin have pared the play down to fast paced two hours and ten minutes of fun in a farcical/comedic manner. Opening night was perfect with the exception of Gabe Marin unintentionally entangling his unwieldy costume in the back of a chair. The cast must be complemented for their professional response and only breaking into suppressed smiles without laughter.

Apparently Arms and the Man is Shaw's most popular play and he disguises his antipathy to war, marriage and social class distinction with a comic scenario that has been turned into the very successful operetta The Chocolate Soldier. It is 1885, Bulgaria and Serbia are in a senseless war and both armies are populated with incompetents. The leader of the Bulgarians is the aging wealthy Major Perkoff (Michael Ray Wisley) and his equally unqualified aide-de-camp and leader of the cavalry, Major Sergious Saranoff (Gabe Marin). On the Serbian side we only meet the Swiss mercenary Captain Bluntschili (Craig Marker) who carries chocolates rather than bullets in his ammunition belt.

Alas, poor Bluntschili breaks into the bedroom of the young romantic Raina Perkoff who just happens to be betroth to Sergious whom she romantically fantasizes as the epitome of heroic love unbeknownst to her that Segious is an “accidental hero” with an amorous eye for the maid Louka (Kendra Lee Oberhauser).

Bluntschili’s breaks into Raina’s bed chamber simply to avoid capture and the possibility of death. He describes the ridiculous cavalry charge led by Sergious on a runaway horse that earned him the title of “Hero.” Bluntschilli’s love of chocolate and his gracious demeanor convinces Raina and her mother Catherine( Lisa Anne Porter) to smuggle our erstwhile “chocolate soldier” to safety disguised in Major Petkoff’s coat. That deed will come back to haunt them . . . sort of.

Shaw cleverly uses humor to espouse his philosophical/social tenets about the foolishness of war, idealistic notions of heroism, romance and the folly of social class distinction. To this purpose he often gives some of his most intellectual lines to servants. He displays his support for the working classes’ pride in work by imbuing servant Nicola (Aaron Murphy) with admirable qualities of loyalty. Examples of Nicola and Louka’s pithy dialog about class distinction can be found in many of Shaw’s plays. However in CenterRep’s production Shaw’s cutting philosophy is secondary to the staging since the acting is so stylized that one would expect the actors to break into song at every turn as their intricate shenanigans pile up one after the other.

The two level stage set (Kelly James Tighe) without walls is highly original with the pale blue rear stage adorned with heart-shaped stars. The shocking colorful costumes (Victoria Livingston-Hall) emphasize the farce/comedy motif to match the broad acting technique that uses melodramatic gestures to great effect. Gabe Marin’s depiction of Segious’ hysterically bombastic idiocy is the most visible (read voluble) humor but he must share a great deal of the jocularity with the scene stealing Michael Ray Wisley who has pitch perfect comedic timing.

Director Carlin astutely allows Craig Marker to be the apotheosis of decorum as contrasted to the broad acting of most of the cast. This contrast works very well and the scenes between Mason and Marker are highlights with split second timed glances, biting observations displaying the necessary chemistry and tension.

One might wonder what George Bernard Shaw’s reaction would be to this exuberant concept production being again described as dazzling, gorgeous, hysterical and satirical by this reviewer.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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