WHAT TO DO?: Wartime confusion.
The language in which the national political apparatus talks about war has undergone some shifts lately (no more, it seems, will we be “staying the course”), but you can safely bet on the sweeping endurance of words like “honor,” “ideals,” and, of course, “heroes.” The women of the Bulgarian family Petkoff have a similarly romantic way of rhapsodizing armed conflict in George Bernard Shaw’s magnificent satire, Arms and the Man. This modern classic receives an ambrosial production at the Theater Project, directed by the venerable Al Miller.
In this manna of comedy and social critique, set in late nineteenth-century Bulgaria, wealthy young Raina Petkoff (Ursula LeMaistre) is sighing over her absent fiancé's glorious battle exploits against the Serbs when a battered, grimy enemy soldier bursts through her balcony windows. Even though he’s a complete affront to her heroic wartime sensibilities — he doesn’t get any kick out of fighting, and professes to travel with chocolate creams more often than ammunition — she and her mother Catherine (Lee K. Paige) protect him when the army comes looking. He turns out to be a very clever Swiss mercenary named Bluntschli, played by the comic delight Mark Honan in one of his richest performances in recent memory. When Raina’s father, Paul (Craig Ela), and her fiancé, Sergei (Elliott Cumming), return from war, Bluntschli proceeds to shake up the conventional romantic and social wisdom of nearly the entire Petkoff household.
The folks at the Theater Project have outfitted that household, and its occupants, smartly and sumptuously. Wendy Poole has one of the best eyes for costuming around; the men’s uniforms are crimson and coal with brass buttons and tall leather boots; uppity Catherine wears copper-colored silk about her head and gold at her throat and wrists; the traditional peasant garb of maid Louka (Michele Livermore Wigton) is flouncy, bright, and provocative; and Raina’s dusk-blue velvet is a sartorial reproach to anything less than idyllic. JP Gagnon’s sets are simple but elegant; we’re shown just the essentials, but beautifully — a wood stove, a wooden table, brightly colored cushions, a gold-draped window. Miller’s cast inhabits these sets with both lovely tableaux and great movement — their flirtations, evasions, tantrums fill the stage.
The characters who so enliven and confound the house of Petkoff are portrayed by a handful of Theater Project veterans, who also happen to be some of the best comedic actors in the region. The result is an utter pleasure of a production — it showcases impeccable timing, gorgeous hilarity in both dead-pans and melodrama, and deeply satisfying wit in the delivery of Shaw’s great writing. Paige’s Catherine is a riot as she manipulates the situational irony and then quietly winces, fumes, and rolls eyes as things slip out of her control. As her husband, Major Paul Petkoff, Ela is more fun than I’ve had since the pigs ate my kid brother; his hoarse befuddlement with the womenfolk and everything else is simply a scream. And the formidable Livermore Wigton is magnificent as Louka, the maid with the soul of a noblewoman who continually makes frustrated children of both her lover, fellow domestic Nicola (Mark Brann) and the ever-pawing Sergei. Sly and willful, but never unappealingly so, her Louka delivers some of Shaw’s most acute observations on class and social structure.