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Shaw Classic Finds Sanctuary in Heavenly Spot

In “Arms and the Man,” Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw takes aim at romantic notions about war, manhood, the role of women and social-climbing aspirations.

Many of these notions fall at the hands of a Swiss mercenary, the plain-spoken Captain Bluntschli. Early in the play he makes his character clear as he shoots down a young woman’s idealistic beliefs about bravery: “Nine soldiers out of 10 are born fools,” he tells her.

David Mainelli’s wry portrayal of the aptly named captain — combined with other winning performances — makes the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre Co.’s version of Shaw’s 1894 comedy a wonderful opener for its 23rd season. Directed by Cathy Kurz, it opened last week in a perfect space at First Central Congregational Church.

The play takes place at the end of a short Bulgarian-Serbian war. Raina Petkoff (Kelsi Weston) is waiting for her fiancé, the officious Sergius Saranoff (Jeremy Earl), to return home after leading troops into battle with her father, Major Petkoff (Brent Spencer). She idealizes his heroism and believes their love has reached a “higher plane.”

Before she reconnects with Sergius, however, she encounters Bluntschli when he climbs into her room as he’s being pursued by the Bulgarians. Though he’s the enemy, she hides him on the balcony when a Russian soldier comes searching.

After the soldier leaves, Raina discovers that Bluntschli left his weapon in plain sight. She learns it wasn’t loaded: The Swiss officer said he carries chocolates rather than bullets into battle. Raina and her mother, Catherine (Charleen Willoughby), help Bluntschli leave by giving him one of the major’s coats.

Relationships become tangled when Sergius arrives. Though he and Raina dramatically declare their devotion, he flirts with her insolent maid, Louka (Meganne Storm), who’s supposedly engaged to an older servant (Craig Bond). And Raina clearly is taken with the captain — her “chocolate cream soldier.” As the plot straightens itself out, Shaw skewers class consciousness, the coquettish affectations of Victorian-era women and the admiration of futile wars.

Cast members have varying levels of experience, but all perform admirably. Storm, Earl and Brigit St. Brigit newcomer Weston, especially, deserve mention.

The location of the performance — a large room that was the church’s original sanctuary — also is worth noting. Its high ceilings suggest a spacious home worthy of the wealthy Petkoffs. A set of screens allows cast and crew to change scenes from a bedroom, to the library, to a dining area with ease, working around the lack of a curtain.

Set changes were fairly quick, though they could be quicker. And the carpet covered by a rug was a little hazardous — actors tripped slightly a couple of times.

Every seat was filled on opening night, despite competition from the World Series, and those who chose art over sport were rewarded. Quality productions of classic plays aren’t that common in our area, and the theater can hold only about 50 people — so reserve your seats early.

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