SHOOT HIGH, AIM LOW 


George Bernard Shaw's 1894 comedy, Arms and the Man, takes place during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War. Its hero, Capt. Bluntschli – played with a generous supply of Shavian wit and style by Timothy Williams in the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's current production – is a Swiss mercenary in the Serbian army. As the play begins, he is trying to escape the oncoming Russian forces; in a panic, he bursts into the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Lauren Orkus), a young woman engaged to Maj. Sergius Saranoff (Darren Bridgett), one of the Bulgarian heroes of the conflict. She agrees to hide the handsome, well-spoken officer, although she thinks him a coward – especially when he tells her that he doesn't carry rifle cartridges in his case, but chocolates.

Bluntschli is saved, and returns to the Petkoff estate some months later, after peace has broken out. Maj. Petkoff (Kristian Truelsen), Raina's father, convinces him to stay to help set the armistice terms. His intelligent and realistic worldview has an effect on Raina, who has to confront the hollowness of her quixotic ideas and values, as well as the true nobility of Bluntschli, her "chocolate-cream soldier." A subplot concerns the machinations of Louka (Sarah Hankins) and Nicola (Don Seay), two servants interested in moving up the social ladder by any means necessary.

Under the direction of Thomas Ouellette, OSF's initial foray into the Shaw oeuvre has provided first-rate entertainment that succeeds according to its narrowed vision. The action is precise and droll; the characters cartoonish, quick and agile. Especially in tune with the most outlandish aspects of the script is Bridgett's Sergius, a tortured romantic who is beginning to suspect that the Victorian outlook on love and heroism is largely at odds with the painful realities of a new century. After all, cavalry charges are suicidal when the enemy is employing machine guns; and chaste, idealistic love is tiresome at best. Bridgett's plastic body betrays a mass of contradictions as each part of his character – the hero, the buffoon, the humbug, the blackguard and the coward – humorously struggles for supremacy.

But Shaw was nothing if not a polemicist. As sparkling and erudite as his comic touch may have been, his theatrical skills were only a means by which to make sweeping statements about the nature of society and politics. Arms and the Man is outwardly a love story of commédia-esque proportions, but beneath the deft farce is a passionate and prescient broadside against Europe's dangerous flirtation with the kind of heroic jingoism that, 20 years after the play's arrival, would ignite World War I and decimate a generation of young men.

As an evanescent evening of glib banter and drawing-room comedy, this production ranks high. But in choosing to steer the play away from the acerbic Socialist's philosophical arguments in favor of the hijinks of his stagecraft, OSF may have missed an opportunity to probe deeper. Now more than ever, we need theatre with a potent anti-war message that speaks to the hypocrisies and vestigial notions of this new century. Shaw may have sugarcoated his pacifistic views to make them go down easier, but at least they were there. Here, we have only the candy.

Arms and the Man
Through Nov. 20
Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival arts@orlandoweekly.com

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