Shaw disarms Broadway wolf

May 09, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

He's playing the Chocolate Cream Soldier, but he's allergic to chocolate.

Not exactly typecasting. But that's the magic of theater.

"It's illusion. We deal in illusion," explains Robert Westenberg, who's cast in the lead role of Capt. Bluntschli -- nicknamed the Chocolate Cream Soldier -- in Center Stage's production of George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man," which opens Wednesday.

"You drink liquor on stage, it's never liquor. You always find some substitute," he says. So what will substitute for the chocolate creams Westenberg is supposed to wolf down in the first act? "We'll find something," he says, without divulging any tricks of the trade.

And speaking of wolves, this handsome actor with chiseled features and an intense gaze is no stranger to the breed. Politely chatting at a table on Center Stage's mezzanine before a recent rehearsal, the former seminarian seems the complete gentleman. But this actor is best known for wearing wolf's clothing.

For two years, Westenberg played LittleRed Riding Hood's Wolf in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, "Into the Woods" -- a role that earned him a Tony nomination. It wasn't the first time he had portrayed a ferocious member of the animal kingdom. He's worn bearskins in "A Winter's Tale" and in a PBS fairy tale series called, appropriately, "Bearskin," and now he's being considered for the role of the Beast in the future Broadway musical of "Beauty and the Beast."

"I'm developing a vast repertoire of animalia," the 39-year-old actor jokes. "If I get [the role of the Beast], my niche will be secure."

"Arms and the Man" could be a welcome relief after so many fur-bearing roles. At the same time, his casting might seem unlikely at first. After all, Westenberg is an actor with an impressive musical theater background; besides "Into the Woods," his credits include major roles in the Broadway productions of "A Secret Garden" (Dr. Craven), "Les Miserables" (Javert), "Sunday in the Park with George" (George Seurat) and the 1983 revival of "Zorba" (Niko).

Mari Nelson, Westenberg's co-star in "Arms and the Man," also has musical experience -- most recently in the Broadway production of "Guys and Dolls." Both performers will get a chance to sing in the Center Stage production.

"Once I discovered I had singers, I decided to use it," says director Irene Lewis. The script contains references to Verdi's "Hernani," and she has interpolated a duet from the opera into the scene change between the second and third acts.

In a less literal sense, there is another type of music in "Arms and the Man," since Shaw is a playwright known for the musicality of his prose. "People always say that Shaw is musical, that his dialogue has rhythm and tempo and pitch, that his characters represent certain instruments," Westenberg explains, adding, "It's an interesting thought, but it's impossible to act."

The actor acknowledges that his experience with Stephen Sondheim's tongue-twisting lyrics, in particular, helps when it comes to tackling Shaw's difficult language. Neither does it hurt that he's also performed Shakespeare, as well as several other Shaw plays.

"What's difficult about it is his grammar, the length of his sentences, the emphasis on thought and ideas -- first of all, trying to make it sound like you say it every day, and second, trying to connect it with an objective," he says.

Like many of Shaw's plays, "Arms and the Man" -- a work that contrasts realism and romanticism -- has one character who serves as the primary mouthpiece for the playwright's views. In this case, it is Bluntschli, a retreating enemy soldier in the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885-1886 who seeks refuge in a Bulgarian household -- specifically, in the bedroom of the play's excessively romantic heroine, Raina.

Pragmatic attitude

Is Bluntschli a coward or a hero? "I don't think he's concerned with cowardice or heroism," says Westenberg, evincing the pragmatic attitude typical of his character, a soldier who carries chocolate instead of ammunition. "I think he's concerned with what he has to do to get the job done. If running away is what he has to do to fight another day, then he'll run away."

Westenberg's comments echo director Lewis' reasons for casting him as Bluntschli. "He seemed like an anti-romantic hero and a professional soldier," she says. "At first I was a little concerned that he was a little too handsome, but you go with what you think is the most talented person."

Unlike many actors who were starstruck as children, Westenberg was in the seminary when his head was turned by the theater. Born in Miami Beach and raised in California, one of seven children, he was studying for the priesthood when a fellow seminarian asked him to help build the set for a production of Robert Marasco's "Child's Play." Before he knew it, he was playing a lead role.

"I enjoyed it. It frightened me. It was scary getting up in front of all those people," he recalls.

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