Chicago Theater Review: ARMS AND THE MAN (City Lit at Edgewater Presbyterian Church)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: ARMS AND THE MAN (City Lit at Edgewater Presbyterian Church)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 17, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


George Bernard Shaw was not amused when his serious-minded “pleasant play” Arms and the Man, produced in 1894, was diminished into the 1908 operetta The Chocolate Soldier. He insisted that it be billed as a parody and that the dialogue be omitted. Yes, the tunes were pretty and the work a hit — but, 124 years later, Shaw’s thinking comedy endures as Oscar Strauss’s confection does not. That’s because so does its target — the illusions of heroism that foster war.

Performed on Ray Toler’s appropriately cartoonish set, Brian Pastor’s rollicking revival for Chicago’s City Lit Theater gives a grand old play a suitably merry go-round.

The trick with G.B.S. is to take a silly story seriously: The arguments must weigh as much as the characters do not. Employing the conventional contrivances and the devilish plotting of the “well-made play,” Arms and the Man (its title taken from the opening of Virgil’s bellicose Aeneid) spoofs armchair warriors and imperialist buffoonery. This two-act trifle focuses on a naïve young patrician caught up in the fever of the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian War, a squabble in the Balkans that pitted Austria and its client territory Serbia against Russia and its dependency Bulgaria.

The daughter of the supposedly fearsome Major Paul Petkoff (blustering Adam Bitterman), Raina (captivating Scottie Caldwell) has fed on martial fantasies fueled by operas that glorify war, like Verdi’s Ernani that she saw in Vienna. Appropriately, this saber-rattling Bulgarian soubrette is faint with ardor for her military fiancé Sergius Saranoff (Martin Diaz-Valdes, ably aping Stephen Sondheim’s Miles Gloriosus and Count Carl Magnus).

So it’s utterly unsurprising that this aristocratic innocent should wax indignant when, with the men away at war, a Swiss mercenary named Captain Bluntschli (witty, wary Adam Benjamin) seeks shelter in her bedroom. A pragmatic pacifist from a hotel-keeping clan, this reluctant professional soldier, though ostensibly the enemy, slowly fascinates Raina as he deflates her delusions about bravery in battle. He knows that no sleep means no desire for derring-do, that hunger motivates as much as hatred, and that cannon fire makes a mockery of gallantry and valor.

Describing a crazy cavalry charge led by Raina’s inamorata, Bluntschli, grateful for the sweets she gives him, shares with this idealistic dreamer a very unromantic view of her future husband and of the actuality of combat, where courage is conditional and terror is absolute.

The comic tension in Shaw’s comedy arises as the audience watches unsuitable liaisons sorted out so that lovers match temperamentally if not socially. Bluntschli, Raina’s “chocolate cream soldier,” is a romantic realist whose invincible common sense and survivor savvy ultimately outweigh his calculated cowardice — while Sergius, it seems, is a womanizing lech whose passions belong in the pantry. Happily, Raina’s saucy maid Louka (Chelsee Carter in fine fettle), in collusion with a greedy butler Nicola (Linsey Falls, merrily mugging) who intends to exploit her, is ready with her wiles.

As always, Shaw is flawless at exposing petty pretensions and hypocrisy in action. Ever “caught in the act” of being human, his sensation-seeking characters warmly wise up by play’s end, relieving us as they turn real. (Besides Caldwell and Benjamin’s well-balanced Raina and Bluntschli, there’s equally sensible stuff in Eleanor Katz as Raina’s meddling mother and Bitterman as her gruff but doting hubbie.)

On opening afternoon the second act’s complications slowed down a tad. (You never want an audience to get ahead of Shaw’s shenanigans.) But a bit more pace is an instant cure. Where it matters — casting and conflict — City Lit does the master proud.

photos by Steve Graue

Arms and the Man
City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
ends on October 21, 2018
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Ned R. Turner September 17, 2018 at 8:21 pm

Dear Mr. Bommer:

I realize that I may be a dinosaur in today’s theatrical world, but I listen to The Chocolate Soldier and find that the songs ARE not WERE lovely. “My Hero” lives today in most sopranos repertoire. When Folk Opera presents these operettas the hall is filled. You, as Mordden, look down on music from the past. Not all shows have to be “ground breaking.” Otherwise, I liked your review of Arms and the Man.

I find that each play City Lit does is a notch higher than the play before it. I am happy that we are subscribers.

Respectfully ~


Leave a Comment