It’s easy to understand why George Bernard Shaw was unenthusiastic at the prospect of having his 1894 play Arms and the Man transformed into Oscar Straus’ 1908 operetta The Chocolate Soldier: His play is a satire of exactly those saccharine clichés that are the stuff of operetta—stalwart heroes, swooning heroines, over-idealized romance—and especially of the glamorization of war that underlies them. Of course Seattle Shakespeare, in its current production, gets Shaw’s joke, and found a spiffing pair—Brenda Joyner and Richard Nguyen Sloniker—to play its targets, the self-deluding young lovers Raina and Sergius. She swans about, embodying a young woman’s provincial notions about what being an upper-class matron requires of her; he’s constantly striking poses, as if modeling for a statue; both are adorable in their pretentions. Though those hot-air balloons by and by get popped, Joyner and Sloniker never fail to buoy up director David Armstrong’s affectionately traditionalist, stylishly witty staging.
The instrument of their disillusionment is the mercenary Swiss soldier Bluntschli: pragmatic, as plainspoken as his name suggests, and far more competent, it turns out, than the gung-ho Sergius. A fugitive from the Bulgarian/Serbian war, he sneaks into Raina’s bedroom to launch the plot, but shocks her less by his incursion than by his refusal to see the war as her beloved Sergius does: as a mere backdrop for his own storybook magnificence. As Shaw’s truth-teller and mouthpiece, it strikes me as a hard role to get a handle on; everyone else gets overtly comic traits an actor can play with relish, and, rereading the play before Saturday night’s performance, I still had trouble imagining Bluntschli off the page. S.F. Kamara didn’t; he brings the role warmth and charm, making him much more than simply the foil to Sergius’ conceit.
Raina’s bumptious parents are delectably imagined and detailed in the hands of Allen Fitzpatrick and Suzy Hunt; George Mount and Jonelle Jordan are animated as the unsentimental butler and maid Nicola and Louka. (Servants smarter than their employers is its own stage cliché, going back millennia; Shaw wasn’t guiltless on that count.) The pacing is up-tempo and surefooted, the whole airy and fizzy without undercutting or overplaying Shaw’s cynicism: a very dry champagne.