Pugilist Specialist

A skillful, stylized protest against self-sabotage in the Middle East


Through Dec. 19

Tickets are $15-34


ww w.magictheatre.org

Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F.

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The Berkeley-based Riot Group has been hiding from local audiences for the last few years, not just in La Val's Subterranean Theatre, but also in New York, London, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Pugilist Specialist is the group's latest Edinburgh triumph, a stark but potent story of four Marines on a covert mission to assassinate a political leader not completely unlike Saddam Hussein. (They call their target "The Bearded Lady," because of his facial hair, or "Big 'Stache.") The suspense derives not from their mission so much as from the social fault lines running through the group. In clipped, cold language, watching the audience instead of one another, Lt. Emma Stein, Lt. Travis Freud, Lt. Studdard, and Col. Johns argue about everything from women in the military to the meaning of the war. "Shouldn't the wisdom and logic of any mission," asks Stein, who's typically the most by-the-book soldier onstage, "be self-evident?" A black surveillance mike hangs eerily over every scene. Drew Friedman and Stephanie Viola are crisp and precise as Studdard and Stein; playwright Adriano Shaplin balances them as the loose, obnoxious Freud; and Paul Schnabel's gray-crewcut Johns is the wavering voice of experience. None of it feels like the product of an anti-war playwright just emerged from a Berkeley graduate program (as Shaplin has). Rather, it's a brief, skillful, stylized protest against self-sabotage in the Middle East.

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