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In high-powered Wellfleet productions, love is a battlefield

WELLFLEET -- You wouldn't come away from the two productions currently at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater saying, ''Make love, not war." In the world of Harold Pinter there's a lot of war involved in the game of love. And the Marines of Adriano Shaplin's ''Pugilist Specialist" are forever talking about the sexual kick they get out of battle.

Wellfleet is running two one-act plays by Pinter under the banner headline ''The Lovers" Sundays through Tuesdays, and the New England premiere of ''Pugilist Specialist" Wednesdays through Saturdays (check the schedule for variations).

The productions are a great advertisement for what WHAT does exceedingly well: revisit the classics of late 20th-century modernism while seeking out adventurous plays that extend the aesthetic. That the same basic team summons up both the English drawing room of Pinter and the military barracks of Shaplin's play so convincingly speaks volumes about the talent at the theater.

''The Lover," the first half of the Pinter double-header, is a remarkable work. Pinter encapsulates many of his concerns about love and power in this account of the games played by a seemingly conservative upper-crust British couple, she a hausfrau, he a totally repressed gent who goes off to work dressed like John Steed of ''The Avengers."

Once he's gone, her hair comes tumbling down and her sexy black dress and heels come out of the closet. And psychological issues come tumbling out of the closet along with the clothes. Pinter sees these two characters as Dr. Jekylls who are constantly on the verge of turning into Mr. or Ms. Hyde. The transformations they undergo are simultaneously humorous and horrifying.

Stephen Russell even looks a bit like Spencer Tracy in the film version of ''Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" as the husband, while Rachel Harker flits beautifully from traditional wife to femme fatale. Harker's real husband, New Repertory Theatre artistic director Rick Lombardo, directs, keeping everyone on the same Pinteresque page. Though he and the actors initially exaggerate the characters' repression, it's the menace connected to that repression that counts, and Lombardo and the actors handle that marvelously.

Russell and Harker return for Pinter's ''Ashes to Ashes," a darker tone poem about love battling with middle-class convention. Here the playwright is more political, tying the woman's nervous breakdown to some fascistic goings-on, either in the woman's imagination or in the real world. Pinter's politics are frustratingly elusive, though he's clearly linking personal repression and political oppression.

Both actors are even more impressive in this play. Their characters have nowhere to hide. Russell's ability to convey helplessness and Harker's to convey despair are poetic in themselves. When you add Pinter's words and all the other talent that goes into both ''Ashes to Ashes" and ''The Lover," you have a high-powered night of theater.

A different kind of electricity is generated by ''Pugilist Specialist," a more experimental play that aims to dissect the military mind through the tale of four US Marines brought together for a clandestine operation to take out a leader dubbed ''The Bearded Lady" in a Middle Eastern country. Shaplin created the play for the company he cofounded, the Riot Group, which won major awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with it. According to the program, the group combines ''absurd comedy and powerful political satire with a unique, confrontational acting style."

Boston director Wesley Savick captures all of that, too, with a remarkable quartet of actors. They swagger, march in place, threaten one another, and look at the audience intimidatingly. These are not people to mess with.

They speak in aphorisms that recall ''I love the smell of napalm in the morning" from ''Apocalypse Now" and the Nietzschean philosophizing of the soldiers in ''Full Metal Jacket."

But there's no cinematic distancing from these killing machines. The central character is Lieutenant Stein, a woman intent on doing everything perfectly in order to give the macho swine around her as little ammunition as possible. Still, that doesn't keep two of the three men in the play from questioning her ability and loyalty.

''Pugilist Specialist" is not a Pinteresque power play. It's a less genteel, more Maileresque view of men and women at war, the sexual thrills of killing, and the cerebral justifications of the animalistic.

The four soldiers go at one another with a ferocity that, as in Pinter, is funny and frightening at the same time. In explaining the mission, the head of the operation says, ''We will seduce their bodies and steal their breath, bury them with heads pointing toward Mecca, and collect memories of their forgotten cause."

While Shaplin's sharp writing doesn't add up to a coherent analysis of militarism or US foreign policy, it's clear that he's not a fan of either, even though part of his talent lies in paying the soldiers a certain respect.

Actors Mandy Schmieder, Gabriel Kuttner, Rick Gifford, and Tom Kee are a tight ensemble, with Gifford and Kee particularly effective. Schmieder's acting and Shaplin's bold style underscore that this is not your typical women-in-the-military story.

In fact, there's nothing typical about it, which makes it a fitting addition to the WHAT repertoire -- among the most interesting in New England.

Ed Siegel can be reached at

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