North Atlantic, the latest production from stalwart avant-garde troupe the Wooster Group, is a sexed up Catch-22 that follows the travails of an international, Cold War-era peacekeeping force confined to an aircraft carrier while on a classified mission in the North Atlantic. James Strahs wrote the piece for the company way back in 1982 and it’s now being revived not to draw any modern political parallels, but because, well, according to highly practical director Elizabeth LeCompte during a Q&A after the show I attended at the REDCAT theater in L.A., the play fits the space that’s available for the NYC run. And Frances McDormand wanted to work with the group. While it’s refreshing to hear a director candidly embrace limitations and ignore politics, it requires more than that to create great art.
“I really wanted to like it, but I just don’t know what I just saw,” was the response from one audience member when I solicited her opinion after the show. Which pretty much summed up my initial reaction as well. In fact, North Atlantic feels less like Mike Nichols’s visceral antiwar satire than it does last summer’s Central Park production of the Euripides tragedy The Bacchae, directed by the Public Theater’s former artistic director Joanne Akalaitis with an original score by her former husband Philip Glass. It’s a case study in onetime radical innovators repeating the innovations of the past.
While North Atlantic boasts a brilliant cast that includes talented “names” like McDormand, the equally riveting Maura Tierney, and longtime company members such as Scott Shepherd and the absolutely entrancing Kate Valk (there are no bios in the program, which seems apropos considering their characters are robotic props at one with the ship’s assembly line mechanics), there’s simply not a lot beneath the arresting, off-kilter, slanted black slab of a set and multi-layered sound design to support those intriguing performances. Which is a shame since the hardworking cast is giving it their collective all to elevate fairly mediocre material. But in the age of CGI and Cirque du Soleil, even the play’s technical “spectacle” often seems as retro as its fossilized script.
And this is where the growing hole in the hull of North Atlantic begins. While nonstop sexual innuendo, or a colonel’s breezy monologue about raping a girl “who deserved it,” might have been titillating in a pre-Neil LaBute era, today the lines sound merely stale. And LeCompte’s staging doesn’t do very much to elevate the dated dialogue. A football suddenly flies through the air; young recruits appear in hula skirts or break into song; female soldiers strike Betty Boop poses. Yet this sex-infused craziness feels inorganic and forced, more an excuse for the actors to let loose and have some wild fun. The screwball hijinks onboard the carrier is less cuckoo’s nest than a clever concept of how people in a madhouse would behave, distancing the audience. Which means that this artistic choice renders North Atlantic a ship overrun by a calculated lunacy with a heavy dose of action and a slow-beating heart.
The Wooster Group’s New York-bound North Atlantic runs until February 21 at REDCAT in Los Angeles. For tickets, click here.