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Once underway, Dramashop production rattles along

ARMS AND THE MAN

MIT Dramashop.

Directed by Michael Ouellette.

Kresge Little Theatre,

November 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 at 8 pm.

By MARK ROBERTS

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW'S Arms and the Man is a wordy, witty play in which the prolific author takes the opportunity to indulge some of his familiar prejudices and obsessions. It is described as an "anti romantic comedy," in which a typically Shavian rationalist (and a Swiss republican to boot) triumphs over a florid Romantic in the competition for a girl's heart.

Dramashop's production gets off to an unpromising start in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Jennifer L. Duncan '91), the daughter of an aristocratic Bulgarian family, where she and her mother (Jigna Desai '90) are discussing the news from the war in which both her fiance and father are fighting. The scene is a stodgy one, with little sign of the wittier lines that are to follow, and neither actress was sufficiently animated to enliven it.

Things looked up considerably with the appearance through the window of Bluntschli (Jonathan Amsterdam G), a Swiss mercenary fighting for the defeated Serbian army, on the run from the very battle in which the men of the household have just triumphed. Amsterdam at once established the charm of this cheery debunker of myths about the glamour and valor of soldiery, who carries chocolate in his cartridge belt in place of ammunition. He matched some carefully played physical mannerisms -- a studied fiddling with his spectacles before examining a photograph -- with a fresh, clear voice in which to deliver the ample supply of clever lines with which his character is supplied.

As the pace increased, and actors and audience warmed up, one began to enjoy Shaw's mixture of rather literary cleverness and gratuitous eccentricity -- he seemed to indulge in a series of amusing but rather chauvinistic digs at Bulgarians, of whom well bred specimens apparently "wash their hands almost every day."

The seeds of the drama to come are sown when we learn that the heroic charge led by Sergius, Raina's betrothed, was a success only by the slightest of chances, and not as a result of his skill. Raina, intrigued by this story from the Switzer (not for nothing is he called Blunt-schli), and his complete indifference to her would be storms of passion, saves him from his pursuers and feeds him with the chocolate cremes he craves.

Amsterdam was particularly effective and amusing at this stage, so tired as to be almost asleep on his feet, but ready with a rebuff for every histrionic that's thrown at him.

Having picked up the pace, the production allowed it to flag again with the first of two unnneccesarily long intervals, in which the scene was changed by a leisurely stage crew. The sets for all three acts were elaborate and realistic, and had been attractively built. Like the costumes, they were reasonably authentic, but unobtrusively so. The paucity of books in the library was striking, but perhaps this was a deliberate joke, given the family's pride in having "the only library in Bulgaria".

The second act introduced Shaw's other version of manhood, the Byronic hero in the caricature form of Sergius (Neil Ross G). From his first appearance, jutty chinned, with firecracker whiskers and staring eyes, this posturing charlatan commanded the audience's laughter. Ross alternated his voice between a strangulated squawk and -- more usually -- a sepulchral bass thrum, which lent a suitable preposterousness to his affected utterances.

Given the parody of self-doubt which his lines represented, it was hard to imagine that the part could be played at any lower pitch than this (certainly the play would have been far less entertaining if it had been), but as a result, Sergius does not offer Bluntschli serious enough competition for the latter' s triumph to have much intellectual impact. Shaw has stacked the odds too heavily in his hero's favor, and by the end of the play we are feeling a little sick of his continual smug reasonableness.

Just as Bluntschli attacks the facades of the Petkoff household from outside, so its servants are at work to subvert their master and mistress from within. A. J. Babineau '90 as Louka, the maid, was at her best in scenes in which she turned Sergius' arrogant flirtation back on itself to gain the upperhand in their maneuvers. Here she revealed a flash of steel and energy that had been hidden in previous scenes.

Nicola, her male counterpart, but a man condemned to "the soul of a servant" (although, oddly, one whom Bluntschli described as the best man he'd met in all Bulgaria, casting yet more doubt on how attractive this hero really is), is a smaller part, but George Madrid '91 made the most of it. He gave a good insidious performance in a part which Shaw has not treated subtly.

Dramashop's fall production is a good one, and deserves bigger audiences than its opening one. Although Shaw's tendency to make everything he wrote into a political tract is sometimes too near the surface, the play is nicely constructed, with plenty of amusing lines, and once underway this production rattles along, driven by some enthusiastic performances.