Not about heroes

Lyric Stage’s Arms and the Man ; Gold Dust Orphans’ The Milkman Always Comes Twice
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 10, 2007

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ARMS AND THE MAN: There’s hardly a time period that doesn’t invite a revival of Shaw’s light-entertainment send-up.

Guns and cocoa butter are the subjects of George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 Arms and the Man (at the Lyric Stage Company through June 2), the first of the great Irish contrarian’s “Plays Pleasant.” Set during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian conflict, the play opens in the boudoir of a Bulgarian major’s daughter in whose head heroic and romantic ideals dance like sugar plums; she has just been told of her soldier fiancé’s triumph in a battle over the Serbs, which narrative has put all doubt about his (and her) splendor from her head. Enter from the balcony a fleeing Serb soldier, a Swiss mercenary, with a vastly different narrative — and attitude. Upon taking his pen to the task of writing plays, Shaw remarked, “I have opened fire from the depths of my innermost soul against the confounded ideals of Truth, Duty, Self-sacrifice, Virtue, Reason, and so on.” So it is that Bluntschli, the intruder in starry-eyed Raina’s sanctum, sets out popping her bubbles not with his sword but with his candid, realistic assessment of warriors’ heroics. A seasoned professional, he says that his task on the battlefield is to do his job and save his ass. For energy, he carries not bullets but bon-bons. Thus does Raina dub him her “chocolate-cream soldier” — an endearment shortened by Oscar Straus to The Chocolate Soldier, his 1908 operetta based on the play.

Shaw takes his title from the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Of arms and the man I sing.” Predating Straus, the play does not yet sing. But the self-styled “anti-romantic comedy” is the stuff of operetta, and so it looks at the Lyric Stage, on Cristina Todesco’s diaphanously draped, wooden-curclicued frame of a set. There being little more to Arms and the Man than the come-uppance of heroic and romantic ideals, director Spiro Veloudos’s broad-comic approach may be best — though I couldn’t help wishing for a little more poignance from the work, with its heroine stripped of her pretenses even as her wooden fiancé, Sergius, must smack up against some self-awareness. Sleazily romancing the maid after professing noble adoration of Raina, he wonders: “What would Sergius, the apostle of the higher love, say if he saw me now? What would the half dozen Sergiuses who keep popping in and out of this handsome figure of mine say if they caught us here?” And he goes on to list among those Sybil-like personae, in addition to the “hero,” a buffoon, a humbug, a blackguard, and a coward. For all his rigid preening and posturing, the guy’s not a complete idiot. And to his credit, James Ryen tempers the rakishly moustache-smoothing character’s vanity and petulance with a soupçon of hard-won cynicism and a fair degree of dash. Barlow Adamson’s amused, pragmatic Bluntschli, though he gets the authorial voice and the girl, is less the romantic hero in manner as well as in self-perception.

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