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Libby Anderson, left, and Sierra Schermerhorn star in the Viterbo University production of "Arms and the Man," which opens Friday at the Weber Center for the Performing Arts in La Crosse.

Rory O’Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune

As genres, “light romantic comedy” and “war stories” seem to be contradictory. But with a healthy dose of satire and social commentary, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw managed to weave them together in his 1894 classic “Arms and the Man,” which a Viterbo University production that opens this week at the Weber Center for the Performing Arts.

“It’s really a comedy that satirizes how romantic people think war is,” director Trevor Walker said. “It’s a very human play about people’s pretensions and how they can’t live up to their ideals.”

Despite its setting — late 1880s Bulgaria during the Serbo-Bulgarian war — Walker said the play has more in common with Hugh Grant movies than battlefield dramas. In classic romantic comedy fashion, the play centers on a love triangle between the three primary characters, Sergius, Bluntschli and Raina, and much of the humor comes from their mismatched personalities.

Walker, the head of the drama department at St. Mary’s University in London, was surprised to learn he’d be directing a classic British drama during his semester visiting Viterbo.

“I imagined you always did American plays,” he said. “I didn’t think people would be interested in classical British dramas over here.”

Viterbo’s production will stay true to the staging and costuming traditions of the period. Although it was written primarily to lampoon the social norms of Victorian England, Walker said most of Shaw’s jests still hold true today.

“He undercuts romantic ideals of living and exposes the reality of things,” he said. “It was written around World War I, when people went off to war thinking it was something quite different than it was. I think he was several years ahead of his time predicting that.”

Early in his career, Shaw had trouble getting his plays performed due to his seemingly “radical” views. Walker believes “Arms and the Man,” being Shaw’s first commercial success, to be one of his least political plays. At the time, Shaw faced criticism from those who thought the show was too light.

“It really is a comedy at heart,” Walker said. “It was only later that people started writing about the political aspects of it in relation to his attitude toward war.”

Years later, English writer George Orwell expressed his admiration of the play, calling it “the wittiest play (Shaw) ever wrote... and in spite of being a light comedy, the most telling.”

“I think the problem with Shaw is that you go there expecting it to be very serious and polemical, but really he was just writing about changes in society at the time,” Walker said. “His work is very funny, and audiences aren’t quite sure if they’re allowed to laugh.”

But in the hands of Viterbo’s cast of students, Walker doesn’t think laughter will be a problem.

“I’ve found the students here have a really keen stage sense and work really hard,” Walker said. “I’ve been really quite impressed by it. I think my English students could learn a lot from them, actually.”

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