Posts Tagged ‘north atlantic’

Performance diary: doubling back

April 25, 2010

April 23 – Andy and I went back to see North Atlantic because you can never absorb everything about a Wooster Group production in one viewing. And indeed, it was very different this time sitting in the next to last row downstairs than it was sitting in the second row center. From the very front the actors were on top of us and overwhelming in their way. From the distance of the back row, the entire frame came into view, including the minimalist video representing the ocean surface behind the stage. When you’ve seen the piece once, you don’t have to focus on whoever’s speaking and you can pay attention to what crazy things the rest of the ensemble is up to. They’re not frozen in place – I just noticed this time the nutty shoeshine business that Doberman and Houlihan were up to as the military officers strode back and forth. I’ve just finished reading The Wooster Group Work Book, Andrew Quick’s incredibly detailed and engrossing study of five productions (from Frank Dell to To You, the Birdie!), in which Liz LeCompte talks about the paces she puts the actors through, having them work very hard to make something happen in the moment rather than looking overly rehearsed. So I was very aware of how, for instance, Scott Shepherd (below) managed the dead space around the leaden jokes he tells as Colonel Lud.

Almost all the notes I took were crazy little Jim Strahs lines I hadn’t necessarily heard before, such as:

— Waddya got for the layman, something that lights up and talks back?

— Ya gotta make ‘em squirt.
— I can’t do that. What does that make me, a soft-shell crab?

— You’re so deformed you could have been born in a can of Pepsi.

— Go ahead, wet your stick.

— Slithers??? Jumps!

— You’ll be shitting shoelaces for the next 35 years.

— Who’s he calling Schwitzpuppen?

The sound score is always subtly changing, throughout the show and from one performance to another, and you could spend the entire time just tracking that. I still giggle every time I think about the scene where the men down front are singing the dirty ditty “There’s a Place in France” (“where the women wear no pants”) while upstage the women are sliding on the tilted stage floor faintly mashing it up with snatches of Chic’s “Le Freak” (“awwww freak out!”). I spoke to Liz briefly after the show and that’s what she was fixated on – she said they’d only just solved some of the acoustic bugaboos in the theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center that North Atlantic has inaugurated. She also said the group is leaving soon to perform in Romania – “Don’t ask!”

Andy and I happily debriefed about the show walking up Ninth Avenue afterwards until we found ourselves stopping for dinner at a relatively new place, Terrazza Toscana, at 50th Street, where sat outdoors on the roof and had a delicious meal: spaghetti with lamb stew for him, orecchiette with pancetta and haricots verts for me, with a lovely bottle of copertino.

April 24 – Revisiting American Idiot: for all my grumbling about how the songs in the show  blurred together after a while, I notice that after listening to the original cast album now I can’t get several of them out of my head (“Are We the Waiting,” “Know Your Enemy,” “21 Guns”). I guess if I knew the Green Day album in advance – like apparently Theatermania’s Dan Bacalzo did – I would have been squealing with delight throughout the show at what Michael Mayer did with each song. That’s what I would probably do if someone made a stage show out of, say, Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album. Not a bad idea….paging Michael Mayer!

From the deep archives: Jim Strahs and NORTH ATLANTIC

March 21, 2010

Inspired by seeing the revival of NORTH ATLANTIC, I rooted around in the long list of articles I’ve published about the Wooster Group over the year and posted online a 1982 Village Voice feature on Jim Strahs (above, several years before he wrote NORTH ATLANTIC for the Group) and a 1989 feature for 7 Days about the original production (below).

Performance diary: NORTH ATLANTIC

March 19, 2010

March 18 –
The Wooster Group’s North Atlantic at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Fantastic show! When the Wooster Group first mounted North Atlantic in 1984, it was an anomaly among their works – an actual complete play, as opposed to the multimedia spectacles they’d previously done that included fragments of classic plays exploded and Woosterized. At the time, it was primarily a genre piece playing off clichés of old war movies funneled through author Jim Strahs’ machine-gun-rapid, energetically obscene, imaginatively free language. Commissioned as a collaboration with a Dutch company (Globe Theater in Eindhoven), it began as a very, very loose adaptation of South Pacific. (And I use the term “loose” purposely as an excuse to quote one of my favorite lines from the play:  BENDERS: Now, don’t tease me, Ann. Is she really that way? Is she really that loose? ANN Loose! Why my goodness, General, you could drive a dump-truck down that alley and K-turn without even using the rear-view mirror.) Aboard an aircraft carrier off the coast of Europe, a crew of male navy intelligence officers and female “nurse/word-processors” are engaged in some elaborate activity having to do with coding and decoding military messages…or maybe they’re a decoy operation trying to draw enemy attention away from the real operation. But of course they spend most of their time trying to entertain themselves telling filthy jokes, plotting sexual intrigues, fighting, singing, dancing, and planning a Wet Uniform Contest. The original cast featured the founding Woosters in their glory: Spalding Gray, Kate Valk, Ron Vawter, Willem Dafoe, and Peyton Smith, with Nancy Reilly, Michael Stumm, Anna Kohler and Jeff Webster. It was revived in 1999 with a cast that included Steve Buscemi and new Wooster stars Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd.

Steve Cuiffo, Zachary Oberzan, Ari Fliakos, Kate Valk, and Paul Lazar

Now the play takes on a whole other currency, since we’re in the midst of a war where intercepting and interpreting terrorist communications is front and center, not to mention interrogating suspects and sexual politics within the military. But just in case that sounds like some kind of straightforward earnest plot-oriented gritty realistic play, rest assured that it’s still classic Wooster Group: high-powered acting and exquisitely choreographed theatrical chaos. The cast is fantastic: Ari Fliakos as Chizzum, the hot-headed, unbelievably fast-talking captain (originally the Ron Vawter role), Kate Valk as the goofy, sexy Ensign Ann Pusey, Paul Lazar as the creepy General Benders (originally played by Spalding Gray), Scott Shepherd as visiting hot-shot Lud (the Willem Dafoe role), Frances MacDormand as Master Sergeant Mary Bryzynsky (Peyton’s role), and a bunch of terrific young new Wooster-ites, including Steve Cuiffo and Zachary Oberzan who are hilarious and wonderful as two doofy Marines under Chizzum’s command. Typical for the Wooster Group, even though they’ve done the show a couple of times before, it never looks exactly the way it did before – there’s always tweaking and adapting to the space, the actors, and to the visual/theatrical whims of genius director Elizabeth LeCompte. The final tableau is one I didn’t remember – maybe it was always there, but it’s amazing to encounter. And the performed version differs quite a bit from the published version of the play, which you can download from Strahs’ website along with his other plays and his fiction.

Ari Fliakos and Frances MacDormand

This show inaugurates the Wooster Group’s residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center – a step up from their original home base, the Performing Garage, in terms of capacity and room to maneuver. Weirdly, though the seats look plush, they’re not so comfortable – my butt never falls asleep at the theater but it was uncomfortably numb before the 90-minute intermissionless show was over. Excited crowd in the house, a lot of press. I chatted beforehand with filmmaker Michael Almereyda – good to catch up – and I brought with me a posse of 8, some Wooster Group veterans, and some virgins, including Andy, whose brains were absolutely fried by the show, and Marta, who was super-thrilled to be sitting a few feet away from Frances MacDormand, whom she idolizes. Then when we went to Market Café for dinner afterwards, MacDormand and two friends plunked down at the table next to us, and Marta went into fits of fangirl frenzy. I emboldened myself to chat MacDormand up — she was annoyed by the interruption but patiently indulged me as I showed her pictures on the Harry Kondoleon website of her in a blond wig in the Yale Repetory Theatre production of Harry’s play Rococo, back in 1981.

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