Shoot the Messenger
Rude Guerrilla's Arms and the Man gets fingered
War is a sham. Love is stupidly blind and egotistical. And telling the truth can really sting. These are just a few of the positions George Bernard Shaw put forth in his plays. He never minced words, bludgeoning to death our delicate realities with cruel, common sense. This means that Shaw is great fun, and his work can be performed forever—it doesn't matter if language or customs change, Shaw's messages, as long as you can find them, work in any age. In tribute to his penchant for harsh reality checks, we shall proceed.
While Arms and the Man is an effective, bitter snap at both the faux patriotism of war (it's just capitalism) and the stupid people who fall in love while raging it (hopeless romantics who care more about the appearance of devoted love as opposed to actually feeling it), the Rude Guerrilla cast, directed by Sally Norton, tend to buckle under the weight of Shaw's words and jokes, trampling over comedic timing and often sounding as if they're reading lines from a TelePrompTer. This muddles Shaw's stinging commentary (which we need, given we've been embroiled in capitalist warfare for the past five years), and it sucks the life out of the play, leaving only pretty window dressing behind.
And it is pretty—really, we have to mention the set—the mural of the Bulgarian countryside swathed across the background wall was absolutely superb. We stared at it during almost the entire show as we rooted for the cast to find their footing and cursed the director for many things, including painfully uninspired staging. (Characters staring out into space during monologues—even if they are recalling some memory—make us want to flap our arms and squawk them back to earth.) Being inventive with a purposefully pedestrian story was a necessity—and one unfulfilled.
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The actors do their best. Raina (Tanya Mironowski), the young maiden of the very rich Petkoff family who allows a Swiss soldier-for-hire, Bluntschli (Sean Cox), to take refuge from Bulgarian forces in her bedchamber, falls victim to the aforementioned blocking, delivering nostalgic, wild-eyed, empty-headed monologues. (We wished we'd taken a tab of whatever she took.) Cox utilizes an oddly robotic, Barack Obama-style line delivery that puts a distance between him and Raina, the woman he supposedly loves.
Raina's fiancee, Sergius (John Byrd), who haphazardly led the Bulgarians to victory and is secretly romancing Raina's servant Louka (Jennifer Bridge), could have turned the whole show into a standup routine with his farcical facial expressions and over-the-top delivery; he's quite amusing, really, but this choice made him disjointed from the production, like a Harlem Globetrotter playing for the Knicks, bumping the ball off his tush while everyone else is trying to win the game. Bridge is also caught in a blocking debacle, being pulled to and pushed away from Sergius with such randomness that she never seems able to channel the proper emotion.
Only father Petkoff really nails his performance. Actor Bart Shattuck is the only one who seems to know that in a play teetering on farce, one does nothing spectacular but plays it straight—Shaw's lines do all the work, if they're delivered with care and pacing.
Arms and the Man at Rude Guerrilla, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; also Sun., March 9, 2:30 p.m. Through March 29. $20.