Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Land We Belong To Is Grand

February 11, 2010

from North Atlantic
Photo: The Wooster Group 2010

The Wooster Group is back in town at REDCAT for two weeks and, as usual, it is cause for excitement. Elizabeth LeCompte and her cast recently committed to an ongoing residency with the downtown CalArts venue that will include several works, both new and old, kicking off with North Atlantic, one of the group’s landmark pieces, which premiered in 1983, and has been revived several times since then. The Wooster Group has favored works that were adaptations of specific classics on their two prior L.A. visits, including a video-obsessed Hamlet and an outerspace spin on Cavalli’s opera La Didone. This current revival with its many references to the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, is far more oblique in its attack, but every bit as funny and challenging. Although North Atlantic has taken several different forms and casts in its lifetime, the core elements remain the same – a sharp satire of American militarism and its association with gender issues, and in particular, the way these topics have been taken up by Hollywood and the media.

But this brief description makes the work sound much more dry and straightforward than it is. It's actually more like South Pacific and Top Gun put in a blender with just enough methamphetamine to make things interesting. Things barrel right out of the gate with five male officers discussing their ongoing intelligence mission aboard an American vessel in a manner that is both highly idiosyncratic, rapid, and off-kilter. Soon they are joined by five female cast members who act as a sort of “ladies auxiliary” to the mission, spying by day and excitedly planning for the wet uniform contest to take place that evening. The women sit behind a long desk atop a steeply raked riser endlessly spinning reels of tape as they exchange a sort of manic dialog with the men around them. But let’s not forget this is a musical and soon the cast break into one of a variety of cowboy songs invoking Oklahoma! as much as the more obvious South Pacific. There’s an overlay soundtrack at times, too, involving loud explosions and other noise. And don’t worry, even Richard Wagner’s Liebestod fromTristan und Isolde is dragged into the mix. The combination is often very funny, although the effect can make the one-act 90-minute show drag along at times as well.

The cast contains regulars such as Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd and Koosil-ja Hwang, but Wednesday featured guest performances from Frances McDormand and an almost unrecognizable Maura Tierney (sans hair) as well. And while the group could clearly have used just a bit more rehearsal with the wordy and rapid exchanges, the performances overall were first rate with an arch and witty quality. Although written during the Cold War, North Atlantic has enough links to popular culture of the 20th century to still pack plenty of satirical punch. Just as American militarism never goes out of style, neither does the criticism of its down side. And while it might not be the ideal event for a valentine’s outing, North Atlantic should certainly be seen and is luckily running at REDCAT all the way through the 21st.


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