May 22--This is the first in a new weekly series of posts looking back at a memorable Buffalo theater production from years (or decades) past. First up is a 2002 production of "Arms and the Man," at the Irish Classical Theatre Company. An excellent production of the show, directed by Morris Panych, is now running in the Shaw Festival's Royal George Theatre.
Here's Richard Huntington's review of the 2002 production:
FALSE FACES SHAW PIERCES THE PREVAILING HYPOCRISY IN "ARMS AND THE MAN"
BY RICHARD HUNTINGTON-News Theater Critic
To be a hypocrite worth your salt, you have to put some real muscle into it. A half-hearted hypocrite -- somebody who doesn't convince with a passion the "truth" of his falsity -- is apt to be judged a fairly sincere fellow, after all.
That's where the irony and humor lie in "Arms and the Man," which opened Wednesday night in an immensely entertaining production in the Irish Classical Theatre.
What makes this play so funny is that the characters all wear thin veneers of hypocrisy, and George Bernard Shaw goes about piercing them with his sharp wit.
Everyone -- even the idealistic soldier Sergius -- seems at least dimly aware that what he or she professes and what the real feelings are deep down, simply don't match up.
The prime example is Raina (Kristen Tripp Kelley). The pretty daughter of a well-off Bulgarian family, she has been hoodwinking everyone with high-minded talk since childhood.
It takes nothing more than a few blunt words from Bluntschli (Greg Stuhr), the fugitive soldier who packs chocolates instead of cartridges, to get her to admit her lifelong ruse.
From the first scene, Shaw is busy skewering old ideals about battle and romance. Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary running for his life as the Bulgarians close in, clambers up a drain spout and lands in Raina's bedroom.
This comically anti-idealistic soldier tells Raina he went with the Serbs because they were the first army he ran into.
He admits the gun he points at Raina is empty and decides to use instead her state of undress as a threat, figuring -- correctly -- that she wouldn't want to be caught in her nightie by her country's finest.
Tripp Kelley and Stuhr work wonders with this comedy.
Raina, who is engaged to Sergius (Stephen Wheeler), finds herself responding to this ragged soldier -- a man who has just told her how her lover won the war by charging blindly like "Don Quixote at the windmills." Beautifully using her great store of voice and gestural variations, Tripp Kelley excludes even a hint that Raina may be an airhead.
In this marvelous performance, Raina's social falsity is knowingly constructed. Even as she vacillates, she is a person of substance and real feeling. No easy farce for this actor.
Stuhr, sounding a little like James Mason, slides effortlessly in and out and around Tripp Kelley's subtle rendition. His portrayal brims with a kind of sly self-deprecation in a character who sees the world and its ideals as a sham but has no intention of succumbing to cynicism.
When it turns out later that he actually is the one old-fashioned romantic of the play, it rings true. Early on, Stuhr made him seem a believer who, until Raina, just didn't happen to have anything to believe in.
When Neil Garvey comes on as Major Petkoff, he is a block of blazing red topped by a ridiculously tall black hat. It has to be one of the season's funnier entrances, helped considerably by Geraldine Duskin's mocking toy soldier costumes.
Garvey is more than a large spot of comic color, however.
While Jeanne Cairns, as the major's wife, chatters, shrugs and cajoles in her wonderful way, Garvey's face is going through a hilarious repertoire of half-frowns, eye-brow raisings and exasperated glances that would be an entertainment in itself were it not so perfectly fitting to the doings around him.
Tim Newell gives the role of the servant Nicola the sense that here is a man with a brain whirling with beautiful rationalizations for his groveling.
If Kate LoConti's Louka lacked fire, it was partly because her chief scenes were played with a thin and mannered Sergius.
It is the one major miscue in an otherwise excellent production that director Kevin McHugh only sees Sergius as a farcical figure of fun.
He ignores the fact that Sergius posesses at least a jot of pained irony. "Romance is over; life is a farce," must be more than a laugh-getter.
And could Tripp Kelley's subtle Raina ever love this guy? She may not have seen through herself until her "Chocolate Cream Soldier" got to her heart, but she would have immediately seen through this ridiculous poseur.
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