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Stephanie Viola and Paul Schnabel
in Pugilist Specialist
It's understandable that someone could watch the first minutes of Adriano Shaplin's Pugilist Specialist and suspect that the eventually incendiary play is a stylized send-up of the long-running TV series Mission: Impossible. Three people in camouflage trousers and brown t-shirts perch on a bench and start discussing an impending special forces assignment. Sitting with their hands resting on their thighs, Lieutenants Studdard (Drew Friedman), Freud (playwright Shaplin), and Stein (Stephanie Viola) speak in flat, clipped tones. Under the circumstances, Viola recalls Mission: Impossible's Barbara Bain, who, as Carol Burnett once pointed out in a skit, had three expressions: full face, right profile, and left profile.

Almost immediately, Colonel Johns (Paul Schnabel), in the Peter Graves role, enters to explain that the looming objective is to eradicate the leader of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The target is a mustachioed dictator who'll be called "the bearded lady" while the operation rolls. But Johns mentions no "should you choose to accept the assignment" option of the sort that Graves was always given at the kick-off of each MI episode; the colonel makes it clear that he and the others are obligated volunteers. Then, as the hour-long four-hander unfolds, the stated assignment becomes ominously different from its initial description.

Having composed his play primarily in terse one-line exchanges and banked anger, Shaplin didn't have harmless spoof in mind. No; having tailored the mannered exercise to Riot Group colleagues Friedman, Viola, Schnabel and to himself around the time when the Iraq war was getting into gear, the playwright-actor has bigger government and military fish to fry. He wants the players' hearts and minds devoted to demonstrating that military chains of command are treacherous and that reliance on the giving and taking of inviolable orders leads to disastrous results. Shaplin isn't in any mood to be subtle about his attitude towards America's pre-emptive strike policy and its aftermath. He's fiercely cynical about anything military -- right up to and including, by metaphorical implication, the present commander-in-chief.

Yet anyone who thinks that the character Emma Stein is culled from Iraqi headlines and is a substitute for Private English will soon be disabused of the notion. Stein represents the universal soldier fighting for ideals and possibly becoming enamored of her commitment. The upright and straight-backed young woman says, "My marine code is governed by morality, sir, and a belief in social change." And just as Stein is emblematic of untainted values, Studdard represents those soldiers who unquestionably follow orders, Freud represents the amoral rule-breakers, and Johns represents the realpolitik officers in charge. At one point, Col. Johns asks Studdard if something makes sense; told that it's an order, Studdard declares, "Then it doesn't have to make sense."

With these four characters as symbols clashing over what they're about to do and how to do it, Shaplin gives a Bronx cheer to the ideals of unanimity and smooth execution of duties. By the time he's finished having his devastating say, he has also argued that contentious behavior doesn't prevent the reaching of goals. When Viola and Freud have finally arrived in the Bearded Lady's palace, the manner in which the remainder of the operation plays out deviates from the earlier briefing. Although the misanthropic conclusion of the play won't be revealed here, it's fair to say that patrons who size up what the participants stand for won't be entirely blind-sided. Put it this way: The denouement would come as no shock to John "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" le Carre.

Shaplin packs high-voltage stuff into these 60 minutes, yet the sense of a send-up still hovers over the affair. Even though I can't locate the following piece of dialogue in the published script, I could swear I heard Lieutenant Stein say in one outburst, "I don't like all this poetry." I share her impatience. Stripping away any hint of melodrama, Shaplin wants to make economical poetry of his enterprise. He and the rest of the Riot Group, all of whom are credited with directing and designing Pugilist Specialist, are after no-nonsense theatricality. To that end, movement is stripped away, along with anything else that could register as superfluous. For each scene the Rioters position themselves on the two benches that serve as the set, and there they squat. Between scenes, they rise in unison and rearrange the benches. Shaplin et al. are going after style -- but, as occurred more amusingly with Mission: Impossible, they often achieve only affectation.

The troupe's history explains some of the outcome. Drama department drop-outs Shaplin, Friedman, and Viola teamed in 1997 when they objected to what they saw as old-fangled theater techniques. With Schnabel joining them and Shaplin serving as dramatist and composer (lots of underscoring), they've developed plays based on their philosophy and performing strengths. This doesn't mean that their weaknesses don't show; indeed, Shaplin admits that the group members generally lack polished acting skills. Sometimes, this undermines the text. (In the instance of Schnabel, the wooden quality of his performing is even more understandable: In his downtime, he's a Vermont carpenter.) Still, Pugilist Specialist is an often commanding theater piece.

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