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Kate Besworth and Graeme Somerville in the Shaw’s Arms and The Man.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Morris Panych
Actors
Kate Besworth, Graeme Somerville and Martin Happer
Company
The Shaw Festival
Venue
Royal George Theatre
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Shaw Festival may have strayed from its namesake playwright over the years and stretched the definition of "Shavian" to the breaking point, but when the artists in Niagara-on-the-Lake feel like it, they can still make an argument for Bernard Shaw like nobody's business.

The 2014 season kicked off just so, convincingly, on Friday: Indeed, director Morris Panych's production of Arms and the Man, one of Shaw's earliest successes and billed as "an anti-romantic comedy," feels like just what the doctor ordered for today's Canada, a country showing early symptoms of coming down with a case of the old militaristic nationalism.

Arms and the Man begins in the bedroom of Raina Petkoff (Kate Besworth), a young and relatively rich Bulgarian, whose fiancé Sergius is off at war and has just led a daring cavalry charge against the enemy. Raina confesses to her mother that she had begun to think "perhaps we only had our heroic ideas because we are so fond of reading Byron and Pushkin," but the news of Sergius's charge has put all the right ideals back in her head.

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Enter Captain Bluntschli (a suave but sensitive Graeme Somerville) to pick them apart. He's a Swiss mercenary, carrying chocolate creams instead of bullets, on the run from the cavalry charge in question. Bluntschli has climbed up Raina's balcony to escape and, while each holds the other captive, he explains that Sergius's charge was only successful due to a mix-up over ammunition for machine guns that sent his troops scattering. "There was Don Quixote flourishing like a drum major, thinking he'd done the cleverest thing ever known, whereas he ought to be court-martialled for it," the Captain says in disbelief.

Raina is, of course, thrown off by this – and, as women inevitably are by contrarian ideas in Shaw plays, also turned on. Though she shuffles her "chocolate cream soldier" off and away in her father's coat, naturally, the two will eventually reunite and all impediments to their pairing will fall away. (That is to say, unnaturally.)

Arms and the Man is a bit of a cuckoo play – it has a classical comedy feel with its fortuitous shiftings of affection and inheriting of fortunes, but it is also a play of ideas with certain surreal tendencies.

Panych and his designer, Ken MacDonald, have had the fine, focusing idea of turning the Petkoffs' home into a giant cuckoo clock – Raina's balcony being the little window from which a birdie might pop out.

While we do eventually see giant gears whirring away, the proceedings are not entirely mechanical: In Besworth's (at times exhaustingly) grandly mannered performance, in particular, you see love or at least infatuation peeking out from behind all the protocol. (In an endearing directorial detail, we find her brushing up on her Don Quixote in the third act, set in the library.)

As prescient and correct as Shaw's views of soldiering may be – hard to believe he wrote this play a full 20 years before the awful human wave attacks of the First World War – his ventriloquist mansplaining about war and nation can grow tiresome. Luckily, there are mad supporting characters from Raina's blowhard father (a blustering Norman Browning) to her scheming smoke show of a maid (Claire Jullien, showing smoke) to her young, quixotic fiancé, Sergius.

Martin Happer gives a most exceptional performance as Sergius, sporting a mustache straight out of Cervantes and a military cap topped with a feathery phallus that no doubt is useful for telling which way the wind is blowing on the battlefield. (Costumes are by Charlotte Dean.)

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Walt Whitman contained multitudes, but Sergius has narrowed down his conflicting selves to six and lists them: A hero, a buffoon, a humbug, a blackguard and a coward. (Mathematician is, obviously, not on the list.) In his stage directions, Shaw describes Sergius's movements at one point as "like a repeating clock of which the spring has been touched" – and in Happer's athletic performance, he is like a piece of the clockwork that has gone rogue, always hopping over tables and couches and semi-aware of his mechanical nature. "Everything I think is mocked by everything I do," he exclaims, seeking relief from the exhaustion of his chivalric courtship of Raina with the maid.

In short, Sergius is the most ridiculous and the most relatable character in this cuckoo clock; and Happer's performance is the kind that lifts this production up from mere chocolate cream to dreamy chocolate mousse.

Arms and the Man runs at the Shaw's Royal George Theatre until Oct. 18 (shawfest.com).

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