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Former Vermont Playwright Takes on Sex Crime and the Law

State of the Arts


Published July 22, 2009 at 10:10 a.m.

The Riot Group's Pugilist Specialist
  • The Riot Group's Pugilist Specialist

Burlington-born and -bred Adriano Shaplin, 30, brings his experimental theater company, The Riot Group, back to his hometown this week for Hearts of Man. The playwright’s latest script, inspired by Dateline NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” pedophile stings, takes a searing look at “what happens after the perp walk … the machinations of the legal system,” Shaplin explains. The troupe, which he founded a dozen years ago with college classmates, premiered a work-in-progress version of Hearts at the FlynnSpace in 2007.

For the revisions, the playwright dived into detailed research. “My question was, what happened after the show?” Shaplin recalls. “When we’re watching these shows, we’re not being asked to identify with the men that are caught in these crimes. We’re being asked — we’re being forced — to radically disidentify with these guys … They’re being presented as monsters and freaks, totally unlike anybody respectable and anybody that you know.”

Shaplin, whose home base is now New Jersey, found that cyber-sex crime stings date back to 1990. With few exceptions, “Nobody was able to mount an effective defense against this law-enforcement technique” or get the charges dropped, he notes. “‘Law & Order’ is perpetrating a very distorted lie about how our legal system works,” Shaplin argues, given that 95 percent of cases are resolved through pretrial bargaining. “The catchword for me was ‘I want to write a courtroom drama that has no trial,’ because I want to write a drama about how our courts really work,” he says. “Not how they work on TV.”

Shaplin also found himself increasingly troubled by how the near-hysterical focus on strangers soliciting kids for sex online masks the fact that most children are abused by someone they know. “This is a theatricalization of a problem that bears suspiciously little resemblance to the actual problem,” he reflects. “And that’s the moment when I started to see the connections between this and the way in which the government at the time was dealing with terrorism.” In both cases, Shaplin sees a class of “fabled enemies who are largely created and narrativized by the people in power.”

Shaplin wonders, “Is this really what the resources of law enforcement should be devoted to? This just seems like the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel and not ever getting on a boat … Constructing this theatrical way of combating the crimes that doesn’t address any of the statistical realities was what motivated me to start writing the play.”

But don’t look to Hearts of Man for answers. “My job is to raise questions,” Shaplin states. “When you talk about shows that deal with contemporary topics, I think they go stale because the answers they propose are stale … One of my big things as a writer is that I believe it is not my job to write what I know. I strongly believe it is my job to write what I don’t know. That’s the guiding principle in my work: I don’t know, I’m not going to pretend to know, and if I think I know, I need to undermine myself and keep opening up more avenues for questions.”