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Taking Up Arms

[whitespace] Arms and the Man
David Lee

Romantic Posing: Michele Farr and Gary Armagnac in 'Arms and the Man.'

Love and war receive their comedic comeuppance in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's tasty tribute to G.B. Shaw

By Christina Waters

IT WASN'T MERELY an eye toward current political controversy that brought George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man to the Shakespeare Santa Cruz stage this season. The deceptively spare comedy of errors is, it's true, set in an exaggeratedly backwater Bulgaria, where war has broken out with Serbia, but last weekend's premiere revealed that Shaw's early play was chosen by artistic director Paul Whitworth's unerring instincts for intelligent theater. Those instincts unfurled into a delicious blaze of comic energy and timing. The production romped its 2 1/2 hours to a conclusion that left the opening-night crowd limp with delight.

As director of this modest classic, Whitworth amazes. The inventiveness of the flawless ensemble, the fluent physical comedy and stop-watch timing are as much a tribute to his fresh vision of the Victorian romantic farce as to this production's fine cast. Incorporating all the major themes that occupied Shaw in his lengthy professional career, the play adroitly sends up both class inequity and sexual sacred cows.

Arms exposes--with neither malice nor cynicism--the ridiculousness of the romantic poseur, and nowhere is this more pithily embodied than in the complex Sergius (William Mark Hulings), a major in the Bulgarian army, beloved of young aristocrat Raina Petkoff (Holly Twyford). The play opens when a Serb army fugitive, Bluntschli (Andy Murray), bursts into Raina's bedroom. Hiding from the Bulgarians, this Swiss mercenary charms the pretentious young patriot, even as she protests her devotion to her fiancé, Sergius.

In Act 2, when peace suddenly breaks out, Sergius and his father-in-law-to-be, Petkoss (Gary Armagnac), return to the family mansion, much to the disappointment of Raina and her mother, Catherine (Michele Farr), both of whom are much more smitten by the idea of their men being heroes than are their men.

Bravo to Whitworth for selecting such a juicily unpolitically correct play, filled with characters for whom cutting a fine figure is tantamount to life itself. To Michele Farr's splendid Catherine Petkoff go some of the finest comic bits of the first half. Both the Gabor sisters and the Marx brothers would have welcomed her into their folds as she juggles simpering coquetry with the spitfire of an infantry commander. Save for the tendency to sound like a young Audrey Meadows, Holly Twyford is superb as the naively arrogant Raina.

Interwoven throughout the sendup of Victorian manners, romantic ideology and nationalist prejudices is a secondary story of the Petkoffs' servants, Louka (a wonderful Maren Perry) and Nicola (Mark Messersmith). In their relationship, Hegel's lessons on how the master is only the equal of his slave are writ wickedly large.

Giving director Whitworth his richly deserved due--this season's utterly successful, wildly funny and ultimately wise production of Arms and the Man belongs to Hulings. His foppish, earnest and (in the most postmodern way imaginable) heroic Sergius eats up the script, shreds the scenery and positively runs away with the show.

To see him assume what he believes to be a picturesque soldierly pose is to behold Dudley Do-Right in the flesh. Hulings brilliantly embodies the double standards, the noble lies, the silliness of soldiering. To hear him vow, "I never withdraw!" is to inhabit that stiff-upper-lipness that is forever, as Shaw knew too well, England.

And to watch him flinging his agile body all over the stage, wailing that "everything I think is mocked by everything I do," is to understand why the plays of George Bernard Shaw continue to shed light on our human darkness. It is Shakespeare Santa Cruz's good fortune that Whitworth understood that too. Essentially, this is the sort of theater that gives theater a good name. Get thee to a box office!

Arms and the Man runs in repertory at the Theater Arts Main Stage, UC-Santa Cruz campus, through Aug. 28. For tickets, call 459-2159.

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From the July 28-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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