The Wooster Group‘s North Atlantic is a dense, corrugated, verbal and sensory assault. Cliché riddled, it begs for clichés to describe it—rapid-fire, pedal to the metal, take no prisoners. James Strahs wrote the play in 1982, and this production, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, has been presented many times since its premiere two years later. The relentless way the soldiers of this military unit work and play directly contrasts its purpose, as a decoy message intercept center with no purpose at all. These soldiers, led by Ari Fliakos, Paul Lazar, and Scott Shepard, bluster on about chain of command, leadership, sexual prowess. Segments dense with text mix with folksy American tunes, both sung and danced. As absurd and intellectually and aurally powerful as the text is, its impact is exceeded by the sheer physical properties of the show (designed by Jim Clayburgh and lit by Jennifer Tipton), which inaugurates Wooster Group’s new partnership with BAC and runs through April 25.
The main set platform is canted at steep and steeper angles, and feels even more imposing than it did at the old Performing Garage space. The upper ranking officers inhabit a cramped apron strip downstage, speaking into a mic like emcees. The set apparatus includes a narrow catwalk with rails fore and aft, between the apron and platform. On the platform is a long work table where the enlisted women (Frances McDormand, Kate Valk, Koosil-ja, Jenny Seastone Stern, and Maura Tierney, familiar from her many TV roles) spin reels of tape, tap on satisfyingly clickety but otherwise useless “keypads,” and brandish an unlimited supply of unsharpened pencils—the perfect metaphor for this neutered outfit pretending to be a decoy. They go from being the incessantly busy (if unproductive) heart of the operation to fulfilling the romantic fantasies, and less so the realities, of the men after an onstage costume change from khakis to cocktail dresses.
Plays have very specific stage directions, but North Atlantic’s are more “Outward Bound” than most. The mid-station grunts (Steve Cuiffo and Zachary Oberzan) resemble gymnasts, mounting and dismounting their narrow plank by swinging from the railing, and changing direction by grasping the parallel bars, twisting their torsos, and planting their feet carefully. Shepard threatens to fall off the side of the tiny stage several times. The tour de force, however, is the choreography for the women, whose feet are at vicious angles the entire 90-minute show, using the table and a scant chair as support. They act as a chorus line in some of the songs, clomping in their combat boots through sequences that zing between folk dance and boot camp drill.
The angle of the slab toys with gravity in ingenious ways. It allows the actors to make entrances simply by sliding slowly down its face, frozen in a pose. Discarded costumes and props slide down the slope, accumulating on the floor. In the finale, two women rappel down the platform as it is angled more steeply, and slash chalk scribblings onto what has transformed from the floor into the wall. The sum effect is powerfully disorienting.
See also: James C. Taylor’s perspective on North Atlantic.
Image: Frances McDormand, Kate Valk, Maura Tierney in North Atlantic. Photo by Steven Gunther.