Review: "The Pugilist Specialist"

Mandy Schmieder as Lt. Emma Stein. Photo courtesy of WHAT.

by Maggie Kulbokas

Women in the armed forces, a volunteer army, the role of the United States in the world. The "Pugilist Specialist" poses many questions about today's military, but perhaps, at times, too many. The timeliness of "Pugilist" hits several raw nerves what with the United States military's continued presence in Iraq. Should we be there? What of the loss of American lives? What role do female soldiers play in war? Timely. Debatable.

WHAT's second offering of the season wrestles with all of these issues. Adriano Shaplin's "Pugilist" opens on a briefing where a crack group of Marines learn they were "cherry-picked" to assassinate a moustached Mid-Eastern despot, known from that point on as "the Bearded Lady." We are introduced to our protagonist, Lt. Emma Stein, who arrives early in an effort to stave off the sophomoric misogynistic jokes and whispers so common in a male dominated institution. Lt. Stein, convincingly played by Mandy Schmieder, introduces us to the man's military--a military women are a growing part of, but one they are not always welcome in.


Stein is soon joined by her fellow team mates--a pensive and monotone Lt. Studdard, evenly played by Gabriel Kuttner and a testosterone-riddled caveman by the name of Lt. Freud played by Rick Gifford. Like Golden Retrievers at the park on a Sunday afternoon, Stein, Studdard and Freud immediately begin to "sniff each other" in an effort to determine everyone's role and who knows what. They are soon briefed by Colonel Jones, played by a stoic Tom Kees. Their mission--remove a thorn in America's side.

Don't miss the 'talk back" following Thursday, June 30th's show. Lt. Col. Gregory Dalglish and peace advocate Mary Zepernick will lead an audience discussion.Studdard and Freud acquiesce immediately. But Stein questions the plan, the team members and more importantly, the motive. It's no secret from the get-go--Stein has a history and Studdard, Freud and Jones know it. There is talk of a previous mission. Why Stein and not another male soldier? Anyone who cracks open a newspaper is familiar with the growing number of wartime stories involving women. Each day we read headlines about women such as Jessica Lynch and most recently, Lance Cpl. Holly Charette, injured or slain in ambushes. Is it the same as a fallen male soldier? Does the press treat it the same way? Are female soldiers a pawn in the military's war games? Are they put on pedastals or vilified based on the governments motives and needs?

"Pugilist" attempts to grapple with all these issues. And as the playwright notes himself, the "Pugilist Specialist" is an evolving work, shaped by today's headlines. But at times, "Pugilist" confronts too many of these issues. Riveting and inventive, "Pugilist" is heavy on dialogue and the cast did an admirable job keeping it straight and evenly punctuated with trademark "sir, yes, sirs!" But at times, the story was a tad murky and lacked a true direction perhaps due to its continuing evolution.

That being said, the "Pugilist Specialist" was a brave choice for the uber-liberal WHAT in Wellfleet. Heads will surely turn when  Lt. Col. Gregory Dalglish squares off against Mary Zepernick on Thursday night (June 30).   Zepernick is  a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPE) and Dalglish is a member of military intelligence who saw combat  in the Gulf War. The "talk back"/audience discussion will take place after the show.  


Left to right: Gabriel Kuttner as Lt. Studdard, Mandy Schmieder as Lt. Stein and Tom Kee as Col. Johns. Photo courtesy of WHAT.

Kudos for the stage design. The set was minimal--consisting of three wooden benches of varying length. What could the actors possible do with such a sparse setting?  Amazingly, they used the benches to morph the stage into several different rooms. Without props, the audience was cleverly led to believe they were leaving the briefing room for the colonel's office, the mess hall or the arid desert. Recorded transcripts of the briefing were used to move the audience forward in the story. Authentic fatigues and headset induced voice-overs completed the illusion of moving the characters through space and time.

WHAT continues to offer a continual font of questions, ideas and theories. Buy your ticket, enjoy the show, but make sure your cellphone is off--that just might earn you a court martial!

"The Pugilist Specialist" was written by Adriano Shaplin and directed by Wesley Savick.  The show runs from June 23 through July 16, 2005.  Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 4pm; July 1 at 7pm and July 16 at 4pm and 8pm.  Tickets are $25 general admission; Wellfleet voters (with valid voter registration card) $21; matinee performances $19; student rush (stand-by tickets with valid ID) $12. WHAT, One Kendrick Avenue, Wellfleet.  Reservations at (508)349-WHAT, at the box office or online at www.what.org.

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