Theater archives

Operation: Quagmire


The time: the present. The place: an undisclosed location in the Middle East. The mission: the assassination of “Big ‘Stach,” a/k/a “The Bearded Lady.” The team: Lieutenant Stein, an explosives expert; Lieutenant Studdard, a communications whiz; Lieutenant Freud, a sniper; and their leader, Colonel Johns. In Pugilist Specialist, writer Adriano Shaplin and the Riot Group present an exhaustingly timely look at the American military—its logic, its ethos, and its secret drives.

Though Shaplin and company are Yanks, they have made their name in the U.K., courtesy of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The British press hasn’t stinted on the laurel wreaths, hailing twentysomething Shaplin as heir to Arthur Miller and David Mamet. (A dubious honor?) From the evidence of Pugilist Specialist, these encomiums are premature, though Shaplin’s dialogue does demonstrate flair and clipped precision—apparently, he used military training manuals as a style guide. What’s more extraordinary is the fluidity and cohesion of the ensemble, a unit since their student days at Sarah Lawrence. Performers Drew Friedman, Paul Schnabel, Stephanie Viola, and Shaplin function with a nearly eerie synergy. They play dissimilar characters, but work as an indissoluble corps.

In Stuff Happens, currently playing at London’s National Theatre, playwright David Hare alleges a British capture of Osama bin Laden was aborted as the Americans demanded the hero’s part in that narrative. Pugilist Specialist offers a similarly chilling scenario. In a recent interview, Shaplin has said, “The reason [Bush] is in power and Saddam isn’t is because he has the bigger budget, the bigger military, and all the historical metaphors on his side. He has the better story, that’s all.” Shaplin may not be a world leader, but he’s telling a good story as well.