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To Confuse and Offend – North Atlantic and La Commedia

Some theater works, like the new Addams Family musical (which I’ll talk about next week) seem tailor-made to appeal to the widest number of people. But one of the joys of New York is the ability to see equally professional productions of shows that seem tailor-made to offend or confuse most audiences.

At Carnegie Hall Thursday night, I stopped counting the number of people walking out of Louis Andriessen’s newest opera La Commedia. The almost two-hour opera (receiving its New York premiere in a concert arrangement) is a grand, sarcastic (if somewhat shapeless) work. Filled with big orchestral textures, sprawling symphonic interludes, and paragraphs of spoken text, La Commedia is a long sit. There are moments where Andriessen fuses electronic noise and old-fashioned instruments to dazzle the ear with new sounds. But without projected titles to guide the drama (a long—but hard to follow—translated libretto was inserted in the program) and no stage action to divert the eye, many audience members just gave up. It’s too bad, two wonderfully theatrical performances by Italian new-music specialist Cristina Zavalloni and Dutch actor Jeroen Willems more than compensated for the lack of stagecraft. The two prowled the Carnegie stage and captured the irreverent tone of the piece.

La Commedia was originally performed with video elements by New York filmmaker Hal Hartley. The mash-up of Dante, the Old Testament, with some old Dutch texts amusingly adds up (if you took the time to study the libretto) but the visual component would have certainly made the show more audience friendly. Perhaps La Commedia will be staged here one day at Lincoln Center (where his other operas, Writing to Vermeer, De Materie and Rosa, have been seen. Until then we have Andriessen’s music ringing in our ears thanks to the expert playing of the Netherlands based Asko/Schoenberg ensemble.

A similarly impenetrable work is the Wooster Group’s North Atlantic. There weren’t any walkouts at the Baryshnikov Arts Center the night I was at North Atlantic—but that’s because the Wooster’s style is so known, that most people know what they’re getting into when the buy a ticket.

I saw the Wooster Group’s production of James Strahs’ play back in 2000—the first time I had ever seen the troupe. I went to their garage space in SoHo and saw Willam DeFoe and Steve Buscemi playing Captain Roscoe Chizzum and Lloyd Lud. It was a thrill, but it made almost no sense.

Frances McDormand and Kate Valk in North AtlanticI looked forward to seeing it again, with Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd in those rolls, plus Frances McDormand and Maura Tierney playing the female parts. (Wooster historians will note that the great Kate Valk reprises her role from 2000: Ensign Ann Pusey.)

10 years later and with a different cast—it still makes almost no sense. North Atlantic seems at times to be a satire of military “intelligence”—imagine Beckett adapting Heller’s Catch-22—but really it feels (after a second viewing) like an exercise: A perfect puzzle of a play that verges on nonsense but allows the group to push the text to the background, making their brand of theatricality the main event.

What’s most impressive is the dedication of the troupe and the unwavering vision of founder/director Elizabeth LaCompte. Despite many changes at the Wooster Group (and a very different cast), this North Atlantic feels exactly the same as the version I saw 10 years ago. I still can’t tell you what most of the show means, but I was amazed at the fidelity and intensity of the performances. Watching the Wooster Group, it’s clear the only audience they’re trying to please, is themselves.

See also: Susan Yung’s perspective on North Atlantic.

Image: North Atlantic. Photo by Steven Gunther.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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