Constellation’s curious choice, ‘Arms and the Man’

October 28, 2011

For a young company, Constellation Theatre sure can feel old. Its current offering, a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” is the kind of unremarkable production you’d expect to encounter in the repertory of a fussy little troupe in some provincial outpost where the pastor’s bored wife needs a pastime.

I say this not to give headaches to the company’s plucky young artistic director, Allison Arkell Stockman, but to challenge her to take a step back and reflect on what more vibrant role her company might play in Washington’s eclectic theater scene.

Constellation, especially through the contributions of her managing director, the technically gifted set and lighting designer, A.J. Guban, exhibits a pleasing know-how in the physical conjuring of a show. The flexible set pieces he devises for each of three long scenes of “Arms and the Man” are minor engineering miracles, given the extreme compactness of the Source Theatre space on 14th Street NW, just south of U Street.

When you sit down to “Arms and the Man,” the rather precious Shavian fable of a Swiss soldier who takes refuge from battle in the bedroom of a bourgeois young Bulgarian gentlewoman, the elaborate set invites you into a perfectly polished domain. And Stockman populates the play with appealing actors, in particular Brynn Tucker as a scheming maid who plots her ascendance to the upper classes.

But once the play’s rather lackluster antics are fully engaged, the piece starts to sag, like soggy upholstery. The story’s heroine, Amy Quiggins’s Raina Petkoff, is betrothed to a blowhard of a Bulgarian officer (Mark Krawczyk), who by some unfortunate accident leads his troops to victory over the Serbs, in whose ranks the Swiss fighting man (Michael John Casey) is serving. Lots of jokes ensue about the boorish pretensions of the Bulgarian gentry — Shaw certainly looked down his nose at the Balkans — and about the blind spots of a pampered young woman who is learning a thing or two about real chivalry and valor.

It’s difficult to see from Stockman’s vaguely amusing treatment what it was about “Arms and the Man” that compelled her to stage it. In any event, it seems an odd fit for the creative vigor of its surroundings — both a neighborhood with an ever more vital beat and a performance space with a history of far more daring adventures in theater.

Arms and the Man

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Sets and lighting, A.J. Guban; costumes, Kendra Rai; composer, Jesse Terrill; sound, Mehdi Raoufi. With Ellen Young, Daniel Flint, Chris Mancusi. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 20 at Source Theatre, 1835 14 St. NW. Visit www.constellationtheatre.org or call 800-494-8497.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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