Wave the White Flag: ACT Out Loud – ‘Arms and the Man’

“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
– George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma

If I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a thousand times: comedy can’t be forced. It involves knowing your material and mining it the laughs that were already there, even if they weren’t apparent. It’s why a traditional sober drama doesn’t work as slapstick and why a farce doesn’t work when played dramatically – square pegs don’t fit into round holes.

That square peg approach sinks ACT’s new Out Loud reading of Arms and the Man, directed by Colman Domingo. Perhaps the piece would have worked if the reading were live, but it certainly doesn’t work in this web-confereced take. It’s as apparent that the actors aren’t on the same proverbial page as it is that they aren’t in the same literal space. The result is a cast of eight actors who appear to be performing in eight different plays, despite all reading the exact same script.

Said script has lost none of its pizazz. Set during the tail-end of the Serbo-Bulgarian War, the play is a social satire revolving around Raina (Allie Marie Evans), who’s engaged to decorated Bulgarian soldier Sergius (Ariel Shafir), but soon finds herself sheltering Serbian (Phillip James Brannon) whose graphic tales of war she finds fascinating. Having been sheltered her entire life, Raina’s epiphany of the futility of “Us vs. Them” strips away all she thought she knew about the way the world works – as does her treatment of servant Louka (Avanthika Srinivasan) and her realization that her affinity for her fiancée may be one-sided.

TOP: Cpt. Bluntschili (Phillip James Brannon); Catherine (Kimberly Hébert Gregory)
CENTER: Raina (Allie Marie Evans), center
BOTTOM: Paul Petkoff (Danny Scheie); Sergius (Ariel Shafir). (via American Conservatory Theater)

Shaw’s lines are just as sharp as ever (“You think of things that would never come into a gentleman’s head!” “That’s the Swiss national character, dear lady.”), but not all of Domingo’s cast are up to the task of reciting them. Much like the last Out Loud reading, technology is as much a stumbling block for the cast as anything else, but there are also points in which certain cast members just don’t hit the right tone. Particularly, Brannon (who never gets the cadence down), Shafir (whose over-the-top take on Sergius strips the already-foolish character of any humanity), and Danny Scheie’s equally campy turn as Paul Petkoff.

Far better served are the women of the cast. Although not being in the same room may affect Allie Evans’ delivery at times, she finds the right tone for ingenue Raina. Best of all were Kimberly Gregory as Raina’s mother and Avanthika Srinivasan as Louka. The two hit all the right notes and were captivating to watch every moment they were on screen.

Said screen features few transitions this time, other than the “boxes” of the actors fading in and out. Along the border are static images of the painting of a snowy European village (Act 1), flowers (Act 3), and one more I can’t recall. There’s also the superfluous addition of a Stage Directions character (Allen Darby, who also fills out several minor roles) whose reading of Shaw’s script in their contemporary bedroom bookends the show. For what purpose, I’m not sure?

It’s not hard to see why Shaw’s classic was selected for Out Loud as a “test run” for a potential proper performance. Yet, this reading does it no favors. It drags out a work that should snap and sprint. Again, much of that could obviously be attributed to neither cast nor crew sharing the same breathing space, but there are still aspects in certain performances that could – nay, should – have been toned down, if not eliminated outright.

Because the problem certainly isn’t the script.

GRADE:                                             D

Arms and the Man is scheduled to stream until the 18th of April on the ACT website.
The show runs roughly two hours with two 2 ½ min. intermissions.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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