Arms and the Man, ShawChicago, at the Chicago Cultural Center. George Bernard Shaw was clearly one of the greatest thinkers–and most forward-looking men–of his time. His 1894 masterwork, about a levelheaded Swiss soldier who escapes the horrors of war by hiding out in the mansion of a wealthy Bulgarian family, not only foreshadows the recent Serbo-Croatian conflict but the current war of semantics between the United States and China. “I saw to it that the treaty was an honest one,” declares Major Paul Petkoff after defeating his Serbian opponents. “It declares peace, but not ‘friendly relations.'”

Shaw created one of his most brilliant comic characters in Captain Bluntschli, an officer for hire who enlists in the Serbian army. A pacifist, he’s perhaps the play’s sole voice of reason: his cynicism and instinct for self-preservation run so deep that he fills his holster with chocolates. Steve Cardamone manages to set Bluntschli apart with his physical performance despite the constraints of a concert reading–a performance style ShawChicago favors as a means of spotlighting Shaw’s ingenious dialogue. Watching Cardamone’s Bluntschli relish the ironies as the other characters muddle about in their increasingly murky network of lies and half-truths is a joy. His performance highlights everything that’s terrific about the play: stupidity on such a grand scale is something to be savored.

–Nick Green