The best compliment that can be given to Quintessence Theatre Group's production of Arms and The Man (written by George Bernard Shaw) is that it is exactly the sort of thing you might see on Broadway — or maybe Off-Broadway, in one of the smaller theaters meant to imitate the intimacy which, in Philly, is an inescapable necessity of fiscally challenged artists.
The Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy is enchanting, high-ceilinged, and ancient. Arms is set in the round, with the low stage surrounded on four sides by just three rows of seats. When an actor is turned away from us, we're still so close we can practically feel the expression on their face.
This is in no small part due to director Alexander Burns' impeccable staging. The show is dynamic and energetic, and all four perspectives are equally serviced. We get the sense of a deliberately choreographed dance with some truly original stage pictures. At one point four characters are seated at furniture on the periphery of the stage, all looking listlessly out in different directions, with nothing but a magnetic tension center-stage.
The actors are all fantastic Shakespeareans; they lend a fullness, a clarity, and a credibility to author Shaw's language which, in its enthusiasm, draws the audience through the comedy.
But the one thing this production fails to do is insult anybody, anywhere, in even the most innocent way.
"It is the business of the writer of a comedy to wound the susceptibilities of his audience," Shaw responded to offended Bulgarian students after an early production of Arms and the Man. In those susceptibilities are hidden the cruelest hypocrisies, which Shaw always targeted.
The plot centers on a pair of love triangles. The prosaic mercenary Bluntschli crashes like a cannonball into Raina and Sergius' idealized, operatic love affair. Raina won't admit even to herself that she has fallen for him; meanwhile, Sergius flirts with the willful servant girl Louka, who, in her subordinate position, is morally and emotionally abused by everyone from Raina to the other servants to Sergius himself. In the end, reversals of fate result in engagements between Raina and Bluntschli and Louka and Sergius.
Though Quintessence depicts these reversals as happy accidents, into these pairings Shaw injects a bitter commentary on the hypocrisy of war and servant-master relations. It is hard to believe Louka's love for Sergius: He's abusive and domineering, and Louka, who wants nothing more than the freedom of her own will, marries him in order to gain status and escape a life of service. Though he is damaged and even potentially dangerous, Sergius is her best hope to exercise her own will as a free person. Sergius himself marries Louka in the ruins of his former life—"my one last belief is gone," cries the former idealist. Bluntschli's proposal to Raina, and his love for her, is only accepted by her "noble-minded" parents because he has come into a ridiculously vast inheritance.
On stage before us is outright hypocrisy, a deadly struggle between illusion and reality, subjugation of will, opportunism, and a damning critique of war, romanticism, love and marriage, all of which Shaw perceived to be constructed out of a framework of dangerous falsities.
Director Alexander Burns' production, entertaining though it certainly is, chooses to be nice; it is nice in the extreme. Tormented, schizophrenic Sergius is reduced to a clown. The sniveling opportunism of Raina's blithely warmongering parents, a direct exposure of the destructive nature of nobility, is dropped in favor of a portrayal of them as simple but good-hearted country folk. The tragedy and absurdity of the unlikely pairings is kindly elided and everyone is smiling in the end.
The tragedy in Shaw's play comes out of ignorance; the cruelest characters do not see that they are being destructive. Ironically, Quintessence's production betrays an unwillingness to explore exactly this dirty, self-deluding side of human nature.
I'm not surprised. Most productions in Philly tend toward the light and airy, with few companies daring to get their hands dirty.
When we take the work of a playwright whose first intention was to disrobe the arrogance and danger of our own self-ignorance, and turn it to the purpose of providing a fun night out, we're skinning the lion and mounting its head on the wall.
What is hardest to accept here is that, considering the mastery which went into this production—finely crafting everything from the stage business to the music to the set—a generous measure of thought and interest in truth could have made for an intriguing and relevant night at the theater.