Over the course of the play, we learn that Sergius is a fake. But it's disastrous if we know all along that the actor is one.

Arms and the Man

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at Allentown College, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, through Aug. 9, (610) 282-WILL

As usual in Bernard Shaw's plays, there's not a lot of plot in his 1894 comedy, Arms and the Man, and what there is (involving a valise, a borrowed overcoat and an inscribed photograph) is, by Victorian standards, rather formulaic.

Set during the Balkans wars of the 1890s (with inevitable, and not undesirable, prefigurations of the Balkans wars of a century later) Arms and the Man is really about the clash between bombastic romantic ideals and politically efficacious realism, personified in the rivals for the heroine's affections. Raina Petkoff (Stacie Renna), the romantic daughter of vulgarian Bulgarian parvenus, must choose between her fiance, Sergius (Robert Krakovski), and the Swiss mercenary Bluntschli (Greg Wood), who hides in her bedroom when he flees from the front lines with the rest of the defeated Serbian army.

The romantic Sergius leads cavalry charges (a foolhardy romantic gesture that would have proven fatal had the wrong ammunition not been delivered to the Serbian artillery); the practical Bluntschli, like other veteran soldiers, carries chocolates rather than bullets in his cartridge box. By the end of the play, the emptiness and hypocrisy of Sergius' heroism is exposed, Raina lets her romantic pose drop and Bluntschli's practicality triumphs, after he reveals that he has just enough of a romantic streak of his own to make the resolution of the love plot satisfying.

Arms and the Man flirts with the conventions of Viennese operetta -- it's not surprising that, without Shaw's permission and much to his consternation, it was, a few years after its debut, actually turned into one. Dennis Lee Delaney's production of the play at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival not only flirts with operetta; it elopes with it. Bob Phillips' set, with its distant view of the mountains, is pure operetta; the director milks every dropped valise and guzzled cognac bottle as sight gags; and schmaltzy little melodies are heard every time characters speak of love.

Worst of all, the director gives away the store in Krakovski's portrayal of Sergius, a much trickier role to play than his disarmingly charming rival Bluntschli. Krakovski poses, swaggers and clowns, practically singing his speeches as though they were ariettas, even when Sergius is revealing the venal side of his character. Over the course of the play, we, and Raina, learn that Sergius is a fake; but it's disastrous for the play if we know all along that the actor is one.

Fortunately, Greg Wood is dead on as Bluntschli, anchoring the production in down-to-earth credibility just as his character anchors the world of the play in down-to-earth practicality. Stacie Renna comes close to being as believable once her character lets her hair down. John Jezior has some chilling moments as Nicola, the servant who knows his place and is willing to exploit it, as does Shelley Delaney as Louka, the servant who triumphs by refusing to know hers. Mary McLain plays the nouveau riche mother, and H. Michael Walls the irredeemably vulgar father.

-- Cary M. Mazer