Theater review: 'North Atlantic' at REDCAT
“North Atlantic” is one of the more hermetic offerings of the Wooster Group, a company whose postmodern sensibility could never be described as conventionally accessible. Set aboard a U.S. military aircraft carrier, 12 miles off the Dutch coast, the piece navigates in a zone that will be a delight to devoted fans and avant-garde hipsters but will probably leave ordinary theatergoers dog-paddling to safety.
When I first encountered a revival of this work in 2000, I had pretty much the same reaction as I did the other night at REDCAT, where this new production of “North Atlantic” has anchored itself. Baffled by the relentless argot and topsy-turvy rhythms of James Strahs’ text (written for the company in 1982), I found myself focusing almost exclusively on the masterful demonstration of the troupe's house style.
With an ensemble that includes such company stalwarts as Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, along with Oscar winner Frances McDormand, who was in the delightful 2002 Wooster Group neo-Racinian deconstruction “To You, The Birdie! (Phèdre),” there’s plenty of concentrated theatrical audacity to entice you along this uncharted 90-minute journey. And staged with the multilayered precision that company founder and artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte is renowned for, the production may confound — might even enrage the uninitiated — but it never bores. In fact, it goes out of its way to be lively, even throwing in musical numbers and dopey jokes, though admittedly in a warped manner that's like vaudeville on downers.
Of course, Wooster Group shows intentionally make it difficult for audience members to find their bearings. What's especially challenging about “North Atlantic” is that it’s not riffing, as so many of the company’s productions do, on a literary masterpiece. The sources of inspiration here are as varied as they are hard to pin down — a wide range of military melodramas mixed with political thrillers doused in camp. Imagine a fantasia of uniformed caricatures jawing dialogue that's been spliced together from B-movie reels free of any censor's skittish interference.
These trash-talking characters, engaged in some cryptic Cold War mission taking place in 1983, all seem to be stricken with cabin fever. The chief symptom is a sexual frenzy that’s largely expressed in slangy put-downs. A squad of women, operating some retro gadgetry linked to the ensuing war games, gives the men a run for their money when it comes to dirty-mouthed jabs.
This atmosphere grows especially combustible after Air Force Col. “Ned” Lud (Shepherd) boards the vessel and immediately butts heads with Capt. N.I. Roscoe Chizzum (Fliakos). The upshot of their bizarre struggle for dominance is a theatrical contest of wills, in which Shepherd and Fliakos, two Wooster Group wonders, vie to monopolize the spotlight as the women chatter caustically at a table perched on a perilous rake and Gen. "Rod" Benders (Paul Lazar) sinks deeper into his salacious solipsism.
McDormand plays Master Sgt. Mary Bryzynsky, a bossy, matronly type who always has a curt word at the ready to keep her gossipy subordinates in line. Valk, who carries the Wooster Group aesthetic in her bones and bearing, is the more frisky Ensign Word-Processor Ann Pusey, whose deceiving goody-goody presence exacerbates the tension between Roscoe and Ned. These women and their equally eccentric cohorts seem out for nothing more than a flirty escape from tedium. Yet like the rest of their shipmates, they cut distinctive satirical figures.
Although the real military action seems to be happening elsewhere, a showdown between the male antagonists is inevitable as the action moves to "The Club," where alcohol dangerously loosens already wobbly inhibitions. But it’s not this jumbled scenario that grabs your attention. (The plot, an archaic word in the Wooster Group lexicon, serves as a source of frustration rather than fascination.) The pleasure of the piece, intermittent as it may be, stems from the assured style of the performers, who take their place in the carefully designed chaos of LeCompte’s theatrical vision.
“North Atlantic" doesn’t have a political point to sell. Instead, it parodies a culture that might be termed the military sexual complex and allows this milieu's whacked-out values to ricochet within the company's inimitable performance universe confines.
-- Charles McNulty
follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
“North Atlantic,” REDCAT, Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles. 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 21. $55.00 213.237.2800 or www.redcat.org Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Photos: Top: Frances McDormand and Kate Valk. Bottom: Steve Cuiffo, Ari Fliakos, Zachary Oberzan. Credit: Steven Gunther