Monday, March 10, 2008

Pugilist Specialist

This past Thursday night Kate and I went to see Red Tape Theater's production at the Cultural Center of Pugilist Specialist, written by Adriano Shaplin of the Riot Group. (Note3/11/2008: I should have noted that my wife, Kate Kamphausen, was costume consultant to the costumer Sherry Legare, and costumed Red Tape Theater's production of The Merchant of Venice. )

Red Tapes production of Pugilist Specialist about 4 marines planning and implementing a black opps assassination of a middle eastern leader was sparse and disciplined. The set comprised a few chairs two tables and small movable projection screens. The costumes were equally simple desert camo military uniforms. The stark and spare set and costuming contrast and off set the rich and poetic language of Adriano Shaplin's script. We are in a sense eaves droppers and voyeurs overhearing (and watching) snippets of audio tapes recorded "for training and publicity purposes" by the military in fact by one of the members of the team, Lt. Studdard. The rich language bombards the audience carried along with humor and humorous situations created by the difference in personality and motivations of the characters as they plan and implement the mission.

In some sense the four characters are stereotypes: The idealist and Feminist, Lt.Stein. The macho and cocky soldier, Lt Frued, the silent stoic soldier, Lt. Studdard, and the encouraging fatherly figure who demands obedience but because its whats best for you, Col. Johns. I was struck by the brilliant but poetic and thus almost awkward speech that the dialog and interactions of these four members of this black opps mission often throw at each other. For the most part the actors were able to deliver the lines in ways that were convincing and fleshed out what could have been flat characters if the full impact of the poetry of the script was not tapped. There were points where delivery almost wasn't believable or the acting almost went over the top to caricature but the actors while they walked that line never crossed it.

I felt the production let Shaplin's rich poetry and philosophical play live without detracting nor adding to it. The exception to this was the bodily interaction of the actors along with their gestures emphasized the sexual and erotic tensions, and highlighted a sublimated homo-eroticism of military camaraderie that the presence Lt Stein both exacerbates and exposes as sexist and elitist.

I heard in Shaplins script through Red Tapes performance echoes of Luce Irigaray's
criticism of Western cultures Phallogocentrism that creates what she calls a "hom(M)o-sexuate" culture that excludes the female or feminine and that draws on and sublimates the homo-erotic. The Macho Freud upon meeting Lt. Stein flirts with heterosexual attraction, but is far more interested in bonding with the mysterious and silent Lt Studdard. In a cafeteria scene Frued speaks the praise of the hot dog and challenges Lt Stoddard to a hot dog eating contest. Freud's language and actions are tinged with the erotic as he caresses a hot dog and mimes it going down the throat. Then in recounting the contest to Stein, Freud recounts the event as if it is a sexual contest and claims to be bearing (as child conceived in their contest) Stoddard's dignity. This is but one example in which conflict contest and violence are given not only a sexual and sexist tinge but are also a sublimated homo-eroticism that excludes women by speaking as if the female is not only other but unnecessary. However, I could not tell if the director happened upon this accidentally or if it was intentionally drawn out from Shaplin's script.

The play weaves many other themes together with drama, suspense and humor for an unrelenting experience in which the desires contradictions and contradictory longings not only of the military but of our society in the midst of a "war on terror" are exposed for all to see. The production aptly and powerfully navigated the complexity of Shaplin's script. Only at brief moments did the actors skirt on the edge of caricature, usually allowing the characters and the story to live in its complexity and allowing the language to bombard the audience. This allowed us to experience the violence that is always there but never directly observed. The lighting projection and sound design creatively supported and did not detract from script I only wonder if more could have been done with costume and set, though the sparseness kept me listening to the language that propels the play along to in its inevitable end.