Arms and The Man: Odyssey Triumphs with Shaw

Brianna McFarlane

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Photo courtesy of Odyssey Theatre

            I have a confession to make. Despite being a theatre student for five years now, I had never seen a show put on by the folks at Odyssey Theatre. There was no real reason for it and I always had good intentions on going, it just never seemed to make it to the top of my priority list. After seeing Arms and the Man (An Anti-Romantic Comedy), written by George Bernard Shaw and directed by Andy Massingham, I will be sure to never make that mistake again.

Being my first Odyssey Theatre experience, I cannot comment on how this particular production fits in with their entire body of work, but what I can say is that this show is easily one of the strongest productions I’ve seen on Ottawa’s professional stages this year. It was so well-done that I had to see it the very next day and satisfy my curiosity about how the play would translate from Odyssey’s traditional outdoor stage to the proscenium theatre in Ottawa U’s Academic Hall. This introduction of indoor matinees is relatively new to Odyssey’s “Theatre Under the Stars” season. Any adaptations between spaces are fairly minute and even though I much preferred the outdoor venue, the production itself remains solid inside or out and is not one to be missed.

Odyssey Theatre touts a proud history of performing “under the stars” every summer and has been presenting Ottawa audiences with their commedia dell’arte for an impressive 27 years. Commedia originates in Renaissance Italy and is a style that is deeply rooted in slapstick comedy and probably best known for its use of mask. You might be wondering how on earth commedia fits in with Shaw, who is typically associated with serious drama and incisive wittiness, but Odyssey and capable director Massingham show us that the Shavian script actually lends itself to commedia dell’arte more successfully than you might have originally thought. Actually, my colleague Ian Huffam says it best in his review for the show:

“…a story about love, war, mistaken identities, infidelity, and shiftless servants. What could be more commedia than that?”

The show takes place in the house of the Petkoffs, a family of “affluent” Bulgarians during the 1885 Serbo-Bulgarian war. Our heroine (of sorts) is young and beautiful Raina, who often gets carried away with her romantic ideals about love and war. Engaged to the dashing soldier and battle hero Sergius Saranoff, Raina finds herself in a sticky situation when she becomes inexplicably intrigued by the fugitive who climbs through her bedroom window one night. Instead of raising the alarm, she chooses to save her enemy’s life by sneaking him out of the house disguised in one of her father’s coats. Having washed her hands of the situation (or so we are led to believe), we watch as Raina’s perfect romantic world quickly crumbles all around her when the mysterious soldier turns up in her family’s drawing room six months later, until nothing remains but chaos by the beginning of Act Three.

The set, designed by Snezana Pesic, is very much the same at both venues. Keeping it relatively simplistic the stage is neither overbearing nor underwhelming, it suits the story and the style perfectly and is ultimately effective in creating a world for these larger than life characters to play in. Nothing is on stage that doesn’t need to be and the set transitions are seamless. The masks and the costumes, designed by Almut Ellinghaus and Alex Amini respectively, are equally stunning in both concept and design.

This universe that the designers have created, however, is nothing without its inhabitants. Commedia, like most comedies, relies heavily on ensemble work and timing. If those elements are not completely solid, you risk having missed connections and flat jokes on stage, which is sure to be the death of any comedy.  Massingham has certainly cultivated a rock solid cast for this production and I could not find a single weak link in this chain!

The director cleverly integrates his actors’ wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets into their characters. Philippa Leslie’s extensive dance training is quite clear through her stylized movements as Raina and has the ability to absolutely float across the stage. Comedian  and Ottawa favourite, Peter Brault is perfectly cast as trusted servant Nichola and carries this low status character off with aplomb. Doreen Taylor-Claxton uses her vocal talent to create character through voice and gives more depth to the Mistress of the house, Catherine Petkoff. Special mentions have to go to David Warburton who is delightful as the sputtering old gent, Major Paul Petkoff; and Attila Clemann playing a commendable straight-man in an ensemble of clowns as Captain Bluntschli.

The strongest performers for me, though, again, they were all strong, were Dylan George and Claire Armstrong as the blackguard/buffoon Sergius Saranoff and the fiery maid Louka, respectively. The most compelling and comic moments on stage usually involved one or both of these characters. George had me in stitches with almost every line delivered and when Armstrong grits out that she is worth six of her mistress Raina with genuine tears in her eyes, she stole the entire show for me.

Andy Massingham seriously needs to be commended for his directorial vision in this production, because I find it to be superb: his vision made sense for both the script and the style; the emphasis on the falseness of society was clear; and he showed tremendous confidence in his ensemble by trusting and capitalizing on their abilities. He and his cast manage to deliver everything one could possibly hope for in a comedy: impeccable timing, hilarious characters, and a world that becomes so topsy-turvy you can’t help but be intrigued. Kudos to everyone involved!

Now, I wanted to write a little bit about the indoor versus outdoor venues for those wondering where they should see it. First, it must be mentioned that the indoor matinees were originally incorporated in order to accommodate some of Odyssey’s long standing patrons who either find the comfort level of the outdoor seating to be lacking or who are physically unable to sit in bleachers for an extended period of time, not to mention that performing outdoors always runs the risk of meeting with some inclement weather.

As I previously stated, the production remains as solid indoors as it is outside and I can imagine many patrons are happy about the inclusion of an indoor venue. However, I felt these particular characters to be too big for Academic Hall, and because I had already seen it outside, I thought the production felt a trifle cramped. Again, this is not to say that the production suffered by any means, but that there seemed to be no magic to the world they create in Academic Hall as there had been in Strathcona Park.

Outside the world felt three dimensional and tangible. You could see the characters walk off the stage and interact with the natural world around them. Performers climb trees, fall out of bushes, and hang laundry on a real clothes line. I was so taken in by the depth of this world that I completely forgot that I was sitting in bleachers for two hours.

So my ultimate conclusion is this: this production is exceptional in both venues, but if you want to see and experience what Odyssey Theatre has seemingly perfected, I highly recommend the “Theatre Under the Stars” approach, there is a magic there that simply cannot be expressed by any words, but only by experiencing it yourself. Bravo!

Arms and the Man plays until August 25. Indoor matinees run Thursdays and Sundays at 2pm in Academic Hall. Outdoor performances run Tuesday-Sunday at 8pm in Strathcona Park. Check out Odyssey Theatre for more details.

An Odyssey Theatre Production

Directed by Andy Massingham

Set Design by Snezana Pesic

Mask Design and Construction by Almut Ellinghaus

Costume Design and Construction by Alex Amini

Make-up Design by Annie Lefebvre

Lighting Design by Ron Ward

Cast: Philippa Leslie, Doreen Taylor-Claxton, Claire Armstrong, Attila Clemann, Pierre Brault, David Warburton, Dylan George