Old soldier fades away in 'Arms and the Man'

March 11, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Think of the themes of ideal love and wartime heroism as two giant balloons. Now picture playwright George Bernard Shaw as a little bearded gnome wielding a great big hat pin.

That's what you get in "Arms and the Man," Shaw's 1894 comedy, receiving a mostly serviceable, though uneven, production as the 1997 season opener at the Olney Theatre Center.

The unevenness is due primarily to the casting of Martin LaPlatney in the pivotal role of Capt. Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary soldier affectionately dubbed "the chocolate cream soldier."

Bluntschli is given this nickname by his eventual love interest -- a naive young, romantic Bulgarian woman named Raina, who is appalled to learn of his habit of filling his cartridge case with chocolates instead of ammunition.

The two meet when Bluntschli, a fugitive running from enemy Bulgarian troops, seeks sanctuary in Raina's bedroom. And there, in the play's opening moments, the trouble with Olney's production begins.

Bluntschli is supposed to be so exhausted he can barely stand up. And indeed, LaPlatney makes his entrance winded and spent. He's also supposed to be an old soldier, as he refers to himself. But not only does LaPlatney never seem to get his wind back, he simply looks -- and acts -- too old, especially for Allison Krizner's girlish Raina. LaPlatney's Bluntschli remains so weary from start to finish that at times he seems bored.

Though this gets director John Going's production off to a slow start, the pace picks up considerably with the second-act entrance of Raina's fiance, Major Sergius Saranoff, played by Rex Young as a preening, but bumbling, poseur. He and Krizner's Raina look as pretty together as a pair of china dolls; they're the 19th-century Shavian equivalent of Barbie and Ken -- all surface and no substance.

And that's exactly Shaw's point. These young lovers see themselves as exemplars of "the higher love" -- an ideal they are unable to sustain from one minute to the next. Together they have no more idea about the realities of love than Raina has about the realities of war.

Halo Wines as Raina's silly, social-climbing mother and especially Thomas Carson as Raina's doting, jolly father also bring much-needed vitality to the production. But as Raina's socialist-leaning maid, a servant with aspirations above her station, Sarah Ripard is more like a scheming temptress -- an impression unfortunately augmented by Marianne Krostynne's low-cut costume design -- than the shrewd, class-shattering character Shaw intended.

For that matter, much of the production's design seems at cross purposes with the text. Chris Pickart's set looks like a Disney cartoon instead of a satirical take on a nouveau riche household.

The balloons Shaw was puncturing were weightier than cartoons; he modeled his play after the overblown pretentions of military melodramas and opera, and in the process he attempted to deflate nothing less than all of Victorian pomposity. He did this with his usual facility for bristling wit, but Olney's production bristles only occasionally, and when LaPlatney's "chocolate cream soldier" is on stage, it bogs down.

'Arms and the Man'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays and March 13. Through April 6

Tickets: $10-$32

Call: (301) 924-3400

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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