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Tucson Weekly Nationalistic Nabobs

A Tucson troupe does a serviceable job with Shaw's "Arms and the Man."

By Margaret Regan

MAY 11, 1998:  NOT SINCE CANDIDA hit the boards at Arizona Theatre Company back in 1996 has the Old Pueblo seen a play by the illustrious George Bernard Shaw.

Arms and the Man, an 1894 work by the only playwright of his generation to combine drawing-room comedy with social critique, is being staged by Quicksilver Productions at the Cabaret Theatre. One of the city's newest small theatre troupes, Quicksilver clearly needs more seasoning. But under director debra billman Weitzell (she uses no caps in her first or second names), president of Old Pueblo Playwrights, the community company manages a plucky Shavian production.

The entertaining play tells the tale of a love that unexpectedly erupts during a now-obscure war between the Serbs and the forces of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a conflict inflamed by assorted Russian generals and Swiss mercenaries. (Doubtless the 19th-century English audience had as much trouble keeping the warring parties straight as Americans do in the former Yugoslavia today.) The young lady in a proper Bulgarian household, Raina (Dana Faris) has her future comfortably lined up. The daughter of a Serbian major, she is set to marry a dashing young war hero. Her plans are upset by a wholly theatrical invasion of her bedchamber late one night: A Swiss mercenary fleeing the Serbs climbs into her window and demands refuge at gun point.

The invader, however, is a soldier with a twist. Bluntschli (Dean Hepker) is an urbane skeptic, a practical Swiss who believes the best soldierly action is the kind that keeps him alive. He has no patience with false heroics, and regales his young hostess--who's torn between her social duties to a guest and her fear of his gun--with the antic battle story of an idiotic Serb who led a suicide charge in that day's battle. The young fool, of course, turns out to be Raina's fiancé, a fellow she always thought was rather slim on charms anyway. Hardly immune to Bluntschli's much more elegant manners, Raina begins to feed her enemy chocolate creams. It only remains for the war to end for this unlikely romance to sort itself out.

Along the way to the inevitable happy conclusion, Shaw has some naughty fun with nationalistic pieties. As a native Dubliner who moved to England as an adult, Shaw had firsthand knowledge of the cruelties nations wield in the name of sovereignty. He draws the title of his play from the first line of Virgil's Aeneid ("Arms and the man I sing") but he converts that ancient work's paean to the glories of war into cynical satire. The former enemies hardly note the irony when they socialize together after the war: In Act II, father, fiancé and former fugitive all meet happily in Raina's house. Gentlemen all, they have far more in common with each other than they do with the lower classes of their respective nations. A subplot about the servants trots out some of Shaw's socialist convictions: The subversive maid Louka (Amelia Doyle) argues with the conservative manservant Nicola (David H. Silverstein) about how best to get ahead in life.

In the part of the genial Bluntschli, Hepker is hands down this production's best actor. Managing a twinkle in the eye while he's flawlessly pouring forth Shaw's elaborate lines, he effortlessly persuades the audience--and Raina--that Bluntschli is the best of the bunch. Faris is more problematic; Raina's on the silly side, granted, but Faris somehow doesn't make us really understand her machinations. Werner James is unfortunately anemic as her fiancé, Sergius, while Amelia Doyle's servant girl Louka is suitably saucy. Ron Trent is a fine blustery dad, and DaleAnn Winnie is deft as the mom. This crew moves through sets of a complexity surprising for such a small company--there's a bedroom, a garden and a library. While there are some slow spots in their work, on the whole the intricacies of Shaw's witty text save the day.

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