ShawChicago turns a staged reading of Arms and the Man into a symphony | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

ShawChicago turns a staged reading of Arms and the Man into a symphony 

It's a perfect anti-romantic comedy, just in time for Valentine's Day.

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Paul Peterson

When a playwright's words define a world as fully as George Bernard Shaw's, concert readings work just fine. And when an ensemble has been as well trained in the nuances of Shaw's wit as ShawChicago's regulars, it's easy to sit back and enjoy the human badinage. The company's longtime artistic director, Robert Scogin, died in October 2018, but its current staging of Arms and the Man, directed by Mary Michell, is a solid tribute to his legacy.

Shaw's anti-romantic comedy follows a Serbian professional soldier, Bluntschli (a delightfully skeptical Bryan Wakefield), who takes refuge during a retreat in the bedroom of a young Bulgarian woman, Raina (Callie Johnson). She takes pity on her recent enemy and hides him with the help of her mother, Catherine (Barbara Zahora). When her father (Charles Stransky) and preening fiance (Christian Gray) return from battle, complications ensue.

The music stands the actors use to hold their scripts seem extraneous yet also underscore that what we're hearing is a Shavian symphony. These performers know the inflections and have the timing necessary to wring every wry laugh out of Shaw's evergreen puncturing of heroic idealism and romantic fidelity. Toss in Lydia Berger Gray and Gary Alexander as a pair of servants with social-climbing schemes of their own and the element of class struggle also snaps into focus.

It helps that this play doesn't feature the long discourses of other Shaw classics. (Hello, Saint Joan!) The sharp, elegant writing comes through with little fuss but obvious affection in Michell's smart staging.   v

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