Pugilist Specialist | Darlinghurst Theatre & Flightpath Theatre(l-r) James Lugton, Sam Haft, Angela Bauer and Michael Denkha. Photo - Sally Flegg

The war on terror continues to provoke debate and, over the past few years, has produced its own genre of theatre work dealing with the war, refugees and detention centres. Just in the last few months in Sydney, audiences have seen these issues dealt with in The Gates of Egypt by Company B and in The Art of War by the Sydney Theatre Company.

Pugilist Specialist is at the black comic (although no less trenchant) end of the spectrum. Adriano Shaplin’s play deals with a team of U.S. Marines on a covert mission to assassinate a target code named “the bearded lady” in the Middle East.

Like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 – the original black comedy about war – Pugilist Specialist is full of eccentric soldiers, comic military-speak gobbledygook, and commanding officers whose perverse intentions range from confused to cynical and malevolent. Shaplin’s play alludes to how, in modern wars, decisions are often based on how military actions will be perceived, with the protagonists’ assassination attempt a case in point. And what will the people back home think if a high profile female soldier returns home in a body bag?

Adriano Shaplin’s script earned him the First Award for Best New Writing at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Full of clever and satiric word play, it contains inventive one liners and sharp observations, such as “Victory forgives dishonesty”, a mantra frequently parroted by the characters.

On opening night, director Michael Pigott’s production hadn’t yet found its stride, leaving it a little patchy. There are some hilarious scenes that really crack along but, just as often, the dramatic and comic momentum flags. The deadpan delivery style of much of the humour seems to be at the expense of the overall power of the piece.

Sam Haft gives a high energy and skilful performance as the trigger happy red neck, Lt. Travis Freud. Although it is an ensemble work Freud, with his cascading poetic and comic language, is the plum role.

Michael Denkha, playing the dull communications nerd Lt. Studdard – straight-man to Freud’s buffoon – is also very effective. Studdard’s archetype represents the new face of military communications. His job, taping everything to manipulate later, has taught him the value of keeping quiet.

Angela Bauer gives a strong, though overly contained, performance as control freak, Lt. Emma Stein, who is ambivalent about being the Marines’ “female spokesmodel”.

James Lugton, playing Colonel Johns, hasn’t yet fully realised the black comic potential of his character and lacks the manipulative, sinister power inherent in his dialogue.

Nevertheless, Pugilist Specialist is a clever, entertaining and well crafted play. While this production is still trying to find its feet, it is definitely worth a look.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Flightpath Theatre present
The Australian Premiere of
by Adriano Shaplin

Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre Company | 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Dates: Wednesday 22 August to Saturday 15 September 2007
Times: Tuesday – Saturday 8pm Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full $30, Concession $25, Preview/Subscribers $20
Bookings: 8356 9987 or online at www.darlinghursttheatre.com

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