Reviews: Arms and the Man

GableStage at the Biltmore GableStage at the Biltmore

Director’s Note

When Shaw’s Arms and the Man was first produced in 1894, the play was set during the Serb-Bulgarian War of 1885-1886. To this day, the Balkans are wracked with bitter strife involving “ethnic cleansing” and war crimes. Because these conflicts are difficult for us to comprehend, I felt that Shaw’s “Anti-Romantic Comedy” would be better served by shifting it to an era and battle that our audience is more familiar with – the American South during the Civil War. Although the names of the characters and locales have been changed, Shaw’s play remains very much intact, as eloquent a comment on the absurdity of war as it was when it first appeared over a century ago.


The Miami Herald
Tuesday, May 2, 2000
‘Arms’ two hours of joyful theater

By Marta Barber

You don’t have to know George Bernard Shaw to enjoy Arms and the Man, the great Irish playwright’s 1894 piece that refuses to be shelved.

The comedy, which pokes fun at military foolishness and romantic illusions, has been revived recently in New York and is playing at GableStage, where it has been adapted to a setting more recognizable by Americans than Shaw’s original Serb-Bulgarian war of 1885-86.

Director Joseph Adler places his version in the American South during the Civil War and Anglicizes names from Louka to Lucy and Bluntschli to Benchley. From the opening moment, when an escaping Yankee officer enters the antebellum bedroom of a prissy Southern belle, Shaw’s wit and the marvelous cast deliver two hours of joyful entertainment.

The Yankee is Benchley (Wayne LeGette), a pragmatic soldier whose penchant for telling it like it is awakens sentiments in Rowena Potter (Claire Tyler), the young woman who protects him the night that, fatigued, hungry and defeated, he enters her bedroom.

But Rowena is engaged to Selby Sullivan (David Cirone), a stiff and fatuous Southerner with more hot air than smarts, and both feel compelled to go ahead and marry despite Rowena’s attraction to Benchley and Selby’s relationship with Lucy (Dawn Seward), he Potters’ beautiful slave.

LeGette and Cirone play their contrasting – and cartoonish – characters with enough self-deprecation (LeGette winks and Cirone pouts) to convey Shaw’s sendup. Yet they don’t allow Benchley or Selby to become buffoons.

Tyler never delivers the Scarlett O’Hara attitude you may expect from Rowena, but Bernhard’s Catherine, the protective mother and belle extraordinaire, is a hoot. Joel Kolker as Major Potter, Kevin Springs as the proud-to-be-a-servant Nicholas and Elan Zafir as the Southern officer complete the talented cast.

Only in the love affair between Selby and Lucy does this version of Arms and the Man get a little sticky. Not because of the relationship, which happened time and again in the Old South, but because of the outcome.

But so what if it is absurd? The whole play is – yet it still causes you to leave the theater with a smile.

Palm Beach Post
Wednesday, May 10, 2000
GableStage sets Shaw classic on its ear and guess what? It works

By Hap Erstein, Palm Beach Post Theater Writer

CORAL GABLES — Just when we thought we knew what to expect from GableStage, the company that has carved a niche in a corner of the Biltmore Hotel with lively productions of off-Broadway’s latest, edgiest scripts, it turns classical on us. While George Bernard Shaw’s 1894 wartime romantic comedy Arms and the Man does not seem to fit with the rest of the troupe’s season, artistic director Joseph Adler shows how to dust off cobwebs and deliver a century-old theatrical artifact without museum stodginess.

There are those who argue that Shaw is better read and studied than performed. The counter-argument is currently on view at GableStage, a brisk, breezy, under-two-hour Arms and the Man given new American resonances by transposing it from an 1880s Balkan conflict setting to the hypocritical gentility of Beaufort, S.C., at the end of our War Between the States.

Adler figures, quite correctly, that Shaw’s original locale would be weighed down with the baggage of the current Serbian bloodshed that would muddy the thematic waters and dampen the comedy. Not only is there a greater clarity to the blue-and-gray, North-vs.-South Civil War, it allows for some sprightly period costumes, flavorful Southern accents and a new interracial dimension to a secondary romance between a Confederate major and a servant who has morphed into a black slave.

In any event, Shaw’s anti-war, anti-pomposity tale gets set in motion as always when a wayward soldier seeking refuge breaks into the bedroom of a pampered lass. With slight tweaks to character names and other geographical references, Wayne LeGette devours the role of the pragmatic, cynical Benchley (former Bluntschli), just as he gobbles up the chocolate creams offered as sustenance by the comely Rowena (previously Raina). That she also allows him to hide in her bed when the Southern army arrives only helps to jump-start their inevitable love match.

For, while Shaw is busy polishing up and sending out an arsenal of aphorisms, he is also structuring a traditional romantic triangle. We have only to know that Rowena is betrothed to the priggish, egotistical Major Sullivan, then see the sparks that fly with the charismatic Benchley’s second-story entrance, to suspect where the plot is headed. The unexpected twist is headstrong slave Lucy, whose refusal to settle for fellow underling Nicholas when she can snag Sullivan gives the production a racial edge rather than a lesson in class consciousness.

At the center of the production is a twinkle-eyed Wayne LeGette, commanding the stage as the tart-tongued scallawag Benchley. Without betraying the Civil War milieu or Shaw’s intentions, LeGette turns the role into a modern anti-hero. Just as Sullivan is no match for Benchley, so is the overly stiff David Cirone no match for LeGette, but his two-dimensional approach serves to make the character’s dismissal painless.

Adler not only scores points for revitalizing an old play, but also for showcasing new talent. Claire Tyler, currently in Florida International University’s acting program, is a poised performer with a verbal facility for Shaw’s mouthfuls of dialogue. She is a fine Steel Magnolia as Rowena and a young actress with a future. Also noteworthy is Dawn Seward (Lucy), who asserts herself and makes a favorable impression beyond her fleeting stage time.

At a running time under two hours, surely Adler has pruned away some of Shaw’s loquacious excesses, but the experience feels complete and satisfying. You wouldn’t want GableStage to stop offering the area the Killer Joes and Closers that he renders so well, but an occasional dip into the classics is welcome, too. In both cases, if this company doesn’t do it, who would?

Arms shoulders new aim

By Jack Zink, Sun-Sentinel Theater Writer

A disheveled Yankee soldier, on the run after a licking by the Confederates at the Battle of Charleston, crashes into the boudoir of Rowena Potter — of the Beaufort Potters, among the richest and most genteel of the South Carolina low country — to ruin her day and her betrothal to a dashing rebel hero.

No, there never was a Battle of Charleston in the Civil War. But the one fabricated by director Joe Adler at GableStage is a fine conceit for a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man.

Shaw set his comedy in Eastern Europe, in the waning days of a war between the Serbs and Bulgarians in the mid-1880s. While Adler’s tinkering with history and geography might leave Civil War buffs nonplussed, the transposition makes the story more accessible to audiences here, without the distractions of the current Balkan wars. Too, the only things that Shaw himself might object to are the GableStage ensemble’s forced Southern idioms and accents.

The revival is slickly produced and cheeky. Still, there’s an unmistakable stodginess at the edges. Despite the familiarity of the new setting and the director’s straightforward approach, he hasn’t completely shaken the awe of the classic from his ensemble, some of whom are too green for such an assignment.

Not Wayne LeGette, though. He’s the Yankee who comes to be known as Rowena’s “chocolate crème soldier.” At first he’s loose-limbed and desperate in a funny way, when he forces her cooperation at the business end of a service revolver (empty, as it turns out). Weeks later, after the rebels’ final surrender, he returns to the Southern manse as a conquering, yet compassionate, victor.

Claire Tyler, just graduating from Florida International University’s theater department, creates plenty of ripples as Rowena, her first major local appearance. Tyler’s got presence, and presence of mind, as one of Shaw’s complex ladies.

At first, Rowena hides the Yankee intruder in her room for a night, saving his life. He fled the Confederate advance at nearby Charleston, led by Rowena’s own intended, the reckless and conceited Maj. Sullivan (David Cirone). But the victory was a fluke, and short-lived. Rowena’s father, Maj. Potter (Joel Kolker), surrenders days later at Appomattox (along with another commander named Lee, we assume).

Thus ends the war, turning Rowena’s crème refugee into a carpetbagger who returns unexpectedly, threatening to expose her betrayal of the cause, which gossip has changed to a sexual betrayal of her dashing fiance. Rowena and her society-conscious mother (Linda Bernhard) try to hide the incident, to humorous effect.

In addition, there’s a subplot involving headstrong servant girl Lucy (Dawn Seward), who asserts her own rights as a woman. Lucy works her way up the caste system from her supposed fiance, head servant Nicholas (Kevin Spring), to become Rowena’s rival for Maj. Sullivan’s attentions.

Most of Arms and the Man makes the transatlantic crossing without strain. But these servants in Beaufort, circa 1865, are slaves. The racial stratification of Southern society is far more rigid than the script can tolerate, risking the entire adaptation’s credibility. That, along with the at-times apprenticelike stiffness in the supporting cast, makes warning signs of the labels “adaptation” and “classic.” The GableStage revival has a shortened (three shows per weekend) main stage schedule to accommodate weekday morning performances for Miami-Dade schoolchildren. Perhaps the troupe succumbed in rehearsals to the adage that classics are good for you, and forced Adler to settle for theatrical broccoli instead of chocolate crème.

Arms and the Man gets the Joe Adler Touch at GableStage

by Buddy Clarke Critic at Large

When George Bernard Shaw wrote Arms and the Man in 1894, he set the locale in Eastern Europe during the Serb-Bulgarian War in 1885. Director Joe Adler has transposed the locale to the deep South and the time, at the close of our Civil War. He has Anglicized the names of the protagonists, changing Louka to Lucy, for example.

The story involves Rowena Potter (Claire Tyler), a vixen-ish Southern belle, into whose room sneaks Union officer Benchley, trying to escape from Confederate soldiers out to kill or capture him. She is engaged to Selby Sullivan (David Cirone), a prig of a man, who is having a secret affair with a beautiful slave named Lucy (Dawn Seward). Wayne LeGette is marvelous as Benchley, playing the role tongue in cheek. Other key roles, Rowena’s typical Southern aristocracy parents – Joel Kolker as Major Potter, her father, and Catherine (Linda Bernhard), her mother – and Kevin Springs as the Potter’s houseman, with Elan Zafir playing a Confederate officer.

Arms and the Man is really a drawing room comedy. Director Joe Adler knows how to garner the laughs, which come aplenty. It would have been easy for Adler to turn his romantic leads into characters, but he eschews that road, opting for more subtlety. Claire Tyler is a milder version of Scarlett O’Hara, while LeGette makes the most of his showy role.

Arms and the Man will make you leave the theatre smiling and heaping kudos on Adler for resetting the setting of the play and for giving us a fun evening in the theatre. The production of Arms and the Man will continue through May 27 at GableStage, in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables. For more information, call 305-445-1119.

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Elan Zafir’s misemployment of the run-on sentence

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