Shavians of all stripes, rejoice. The Bay Area Shaw love-fest, which began with Aurora christening its new theater with Saint Joan two years ago and then stretched through The Apple Cart and Pygmalion, continues unabated and in glittering form at CalShakes with a topnotch Arms and the Man, helmed by Lillian Groag.
The progressive George Bernard Shaw was a critic and essayist long before he started writing his own plays in his mid-thirties. Shaw thought Shakespeare overblown, and made his name as a critic by going after his predecessor — there’s a poke at the Bard in this, Shaw’s fourth play, that references the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Arms was written specifically for Florence Farr, a moderately gifted performer whom Shaw was trying to shape into a great actress. Until he wrote Arms, Shaw’s painful endings had earned him the criticism that “[he] will never write effectively for the stage,” while Farr had barely survived John Todhunter’s dreadful Comedy of Sighs. So it was a gamble for both actress and writer, both of whom desperately needed a success. Shaw wrote the part of Raina for Farr, but was so concerned that her bad karma would drag down his play that he changed his mind and cast her as the impertinent Louka instead. Everyone involved with the show was on tenterhooks. Shaw’s friend W. B. Yeats wrote in a letter that, for the first time, the theater had engaged “chuckers-out,” people sprinkled throughout the crowd to eject hecklers. They needn’t have worried. Arms garnered such a positive response that Shaw quit his music critic gig to focus on writing plays.
As a playwright, Shaw is credited with the introduction of discussion as a way of commenting on an issue, versus discussion as a way of furthering character development. Which is a nice way of saying that Shaw is talky, a tendency that Groag balances with precision blocking and crisp pacing. Not to mention that her physically lively actors all turn in first-rate performances in this charming yet keenly sharp vivisection of romantic idealism, one that takes on both love and war without being either ponderous or strident.
The play centers on Raina Petkoff (the wonderful Stacy Ross), a highborn Bulgarian woman anxiously waiting out Bulgaria’s war with Serbia in 1885. Wearing distinctly princessy gowns, speaking in high-flown language, and ostentatiously reading Ivanhoe, Raina clings to an ideal of courtly romance that ebbs away over the course of the play. As she explains to Captain Bluntschli, the fugitive soldier sheltering in her bedroom in the first scene, “The world is really a glorious world for women who can see its glory — and men who can act its romance.” The soldier, however, has other ideas about any honor or glory to be found in war. As he says, “What use are cartridges in battle? I carry chocolates instead.” He also disabuses her of the idea that the mounted charge her fiancé, Sergius, led against a gun emplacement was anything but foolhardy, scoffing that the Bulgarians thus won through “sheer ignorance of the art of war.”
Romantic notions also plague Sergius (Dan Hiatt, pompous yet sympathetic) who notes: “[A higher love] is a very fatiguing thing to keep up for any length of time,” before he starts chasing Raina’s maid around. Anthony Fusco plays Swiss mercenary-for-hire Bluntschli, Sergius’ unknown rival, and in playing the role straight he’s incredibly funny by virtue of being the only remotely sane character on stage. Second in line for that title might be the servant Nicola (Triney Sandoval), who has a nice moment when his beloved Louka (a saucy, pouting Delia MacDougall) turns him down. All the passion she claims his “servant’s soul” can’t feel is there on his face, subtle and heartbreaking.
The magnetic Domenique Lozano, as Raina’s mother Catherine, reveals how her own fantasies have shaped the entire family’s expectations and ideals, whether she’s encouraging her daughter’s wild notions or trying to civilize her burly, earthy husband Major Petkoff (Brian Keith Russell) with bathing and books.
Every actor makes this work look like play — the whole cast appears to be having the time of their lives. Even the set changes are delightful, as a squad of black-uniformed ensemble members dance the furniture from place to place. Arms and the Man is a pure delight from Stacy Ross’ first giddy twirl to the last jig by a renegade ensemble member. This Shaw sparkles.
It’s déjà vu all over again in Concord, as the Willows returns to World War II’s Pacific theater with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Audiences that caught last season’s Teahouse of the August Moon may wonder if they’ve been caught in a time warp. Not only do some of the same actors return, they return in essentially the same roles — but for a musical, South Pacific has more bite than the fluffy, disingenuous Teahouse. Maybe that’s because the book is based on James Michener’s first novel. Maybe it’s because South Pacific is set during WWII, when people were still dying, versus Teahouse, which occurs during the postwar occupation.
South Pacific is the story of a group of American soldiers sweating out the war on a lovely tropical island populated by French plantation owners and handsome natives. With ubiquitous tunes like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and not one but two romances, it’s virtually impossible to kill, racking up more than 15,000 productions since the first in 1949. Marines, nurses, and officers tangle with canny traders and insular planters, blowing off steam as they wait to join the war by sneaking off to the forbidden Bali Ha’i and organizing holiday talent shows replete with synchronized hula-hooping and unspeakable drag.
The standout performances, both singing and acting, come from Joe Vincent as Emile DeBecque and Jason Winfield as Joe Cable. Vincent dignifies the rather vague story of why Emile has exiled himself from France, and he captures the delicate uncertainty of a man in love with a much younger woman. Meanwhile Winfield’s conviction on “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” about how people learn prejudice, is particularly moving. His Cable is also — as Bloody Mary succinctly puts it — a “damn sexy man.” Speaking of Bloody Mary, it would be interesting to hear Jacqueline McSwanson sing something that didn’t force her to use a silly accent; her bright voice, accompanied by exceedingly graceful hand gestures in “Bali Ha’i” and “Happy Talk,” sounds like it might be more beautiful if unfettered.
As Nellie Forbush, the “cockeyed optimist” from Little Rock who has to face her own prejudices, Gina Green’s voice is distractingly high and nasal, although she’s believable as a girl conflicted about her feelings for a Proust-reading Frenchman. Edward Hightower proves again that over-the-top comic work suits him best, particularly if it involves coconut pasties as tiny as his performance is big in “Honey Bun,” which also features the show’s best costumes.
Some of the other technical choices could have been stronger, notably the scenes set on the forbidden island of Bali Ha’i. In an attempt to keep the goings-on mysterious, the massive cutout foliage screens which usually stand open are pulled to. The exotic rituals — and the antics of the soldiers who have commandeered a boat to go see them — are thus barely visible to frustrated audience members straining to see around the screen. It’s a shame, because it looks like some of the dancing is quite lovely. Better to have used a scrim to haunting effect, or made the existing screen (which is otherwise quite pretty) thinner and more delicate.
Another challenge lies in the scene changes. In general the Willows manages these swiftly if uncreatively, but there are so many on this show — which is made up of several very short scenes, almost scenelets — that even with a fast crew and everything on wheels, too much time is spent moving things around, leading to a choppy, distancing effect.
All told, this show is emotionally if not technically satisfying. While the uneven singing and awkward staging keep this South Pacific below the benchmark set earlier in the season by the company’s Man of La Mancha, it’s cheerful and workmanlike, with a certain realism that combines with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s witty lyrics to raise the show above the run of lesser musicals.