The Cold War musical satire North Atlantic, originally developed in 1983 by James Strahs and now in its second revival, has basically become the Wooster Group's trademark show. The discordant action takes place on, underneath, and at the foot of a raised stage tilted at a steep, 45 degree angle towards the audience. Props, costumes and actors slide down the incline and fall at the front of the stage, while a row of desks glides over its surface, powered by massive mechanical gears. The performers' uneasy postures and movements continually pull us out of the narrative, provoking more practical questions: What if someone slips? What material is the stage covered with that gives the actors' feet such grip? Why would Frances McDormand and Maura Tierney sign on for such a physically (if not always emotionally) arduous show? Intermittently, a booming sound system rattles the space with the thunderous engine noises of jets passing overhead, thrusting us back into the setting: the communications center of a U.S. military vessel off the coast of the Netherlands in 1983.
We arrive onboard along with three naive servicemen, their introduction to the preposterous and often perverse politics of this place at civilization's edge doubling as our own. Foremost among them is Colonel Lud (Scott Shepherd), whose poised reasoning immediately grates on motor-mouthed meathead Captain Chizzum (Ari Fliakos). The latter, speaking at formidable speeds, quickly moves past formal presentations and admits: "Now listen and listen good, because this is cabbage I just ain't chewin' twice: this whole place is a fake. It's a dummy, a pilotless airplane." This absurd decoy mission's closest thing to a pilot, then, is General Benders (Paul Lazar), who runs a very loose ship that alternately resembles a brothel and a high school dance (complete with campy songs), and where the only information being decoded pertains to the sexual appetites and conquests of everyone onboard.
Strahs and director Elizabeth LeCompte (a founding member of the Wooster Group) use this bizarro military milieu to stage a carnivalesque subversion of sexual conventions right where they tend to be most tightly wound. After Benders expresses his scatological desires, for instance, he inquires earnestly: "I don't know where these urges come from, do you Chizzum?" "Yes, sir, I do," the young captain responds, "They come from God, sir." This enjoyable dynamic of set-ups and punchlines dominates early on, but gives way to an alienating (only partly on purpose) and cacophonous ensemble melee in the 90-minute play's second half. Among the women—who stand at the inclined desks unfurling and rewinding ticker tape, speaking into microphones in unison like a husky-voiced Greek chorus—a power struggle pits pessimistic matriarch Mary (McDormand, in a role too self-effacing to be memorable) against empathetic upstart Jane (Tierney, excellent in a buzz-cut and military boots), with impressionable ingenue Wendy-Gwen (scene-stealer Jenny Seastone Stern) in the middle. Another triangular dynamic evolves between Chizzum, Benders and Lud, though the play loses some of its sharpness in the din of overlapping shouting matches as these quarrels run their collision course. Despite the moment's ripeness for pointed military parody, the show defuses itself by scattering its forces across too many battlefields at once. Concluding abruptly with a don't-ask-don't-tell tragicomedy, North Atlantic's scrambled coordinates risk leaving an amused but unmoved audience in its wake.
(photo credit: Steven Gunther)