Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

An Absorbing Production of Pugilist Specialist by the The Riot Group

Also see Richard's reviews of Wesla Whitfield

The Riot Group is making its United States debut with Adriano Shaplin's award winning gripping play Pugilist Specialist. An extended two-theater run recently ended in New York where the New York Times called it "an engrossing, inventive dissection of the military mind, sharp political theatre, bound to send the audience out talking." The four-person group is currently playing at the Magic Theatre through December 19th.

Adriano Shaplin wrote the play in 2003 when he was in the doctorate program at UC Berkeley. This was the fifth play that Shaplin wrote for the group. The Riot Group took the play to the United Kingdom and received universal acclaim. John Peter of The Sunday Times in London said this was "the first play directly inspired by the ‘liberation of Iraq'." It won the Edinburgh Festival top prize for new writing and then went to London to two sell out seasons and a six month tour of the UK. San Francisco was chosen as the first city on a tour that will travel the United States.

Pugilist Specialist packs a wallop in its 75 minute no intermission presentation as the four outstanding actors play highly trained American marines assigned to the task of eliminating a troublesome Middle Eastern leader. This psychological thriller unfolds through a series of field recording, plan detailing, execution and mishandling of a modern political assassination. It also explores the mentalities of the people who give and receive orders. This is a chilling dramatization of fiascoes by the United States military. There is no physical violence, but there is an unspoken presence of violent behavior throughout the drama.

Pugilist Specialist is tightly structured and has a razor sharp style of dialogue between the four soldiers. There is black humor and a lot of military jargon that keeps this production moving to its surprising climax. The four soldiers are more archetypes than individuals. The playwright explores the impenetrable terrain of military morality and the romanticizing of the mission. There is a cynical tone about the mission's derailment toward the end of the drama, as the soldiers who had rugged reserve become panicky with emotional unpredictability. One can see the personal power play between the characters, especially when the men try to undermine the female Marine.

Stephanie Viola, Drew Friedman, Adriano Shaplin and Paul Schnabel play the Marines with exactitude and energy. As battle-hardened and wary Lt. Emma Stein, Viola uses a clipped delivery that is striking. Drew Friedman is remarkable as a Marine who has no set opinions about the morality of the mission. He is the type who follows orders no matter what the consequences. Shaplin is tense, adding an ominous sexual undertone to the action. He is is ready for anything and gets a thrill out of combat.

Pugilist Specialist is performed on an almost bare three-sided stage with two long rows of wooden benches that serve as a set. The benches are moved around to create a briefing room and plane. Lighting is effective, especially during the combat scene at the end of the drama. There is also an persistant soundtrack of ambient noise composed by Adriano Shaplin that highlights each scene. This is a stunning cutting edge drama that is very relative today.

Pugilist Specialist runs through December 19th at the Magic Theatre, Northside Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-441-8822 or visit

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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