Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Wooster Group's Atlantic Antics

Walking into the performance space at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, one feels like he is entering the cavernous belly of an aircraft carrier, the setting of The Wooster Group’s NAVY-themed musical, North Atlantic, now playing through April 25th. The multi-leveled industrial construction of the set with its catwalks, chrome ladders and giant sloped platform—like the curved inner hull of a ship—serves as the perfect backdrop for the boisterous display of wit, surprising musical numbers and provocative action.

Minutes into the show, I realized the production intended to stimulate the audience on multiple, simultaneous levels. In the beginning of the play, Captain Chizzum, played by the handsome and brawny, Ari Fliakos, speaks to the audience at a rapid pace like an auctioneer or used car salesman. At one point he tells General Benders, “not so fast with the hot sauce” as if channeling the audience’s reaction to his hurried speech. Like dealing with auctioneers and salesmen, you may not know what you’re being sold until you’ve bought. It is ironic that though the play centers on the exploits—read sexploits—of a group of word processing girls, including Frances McDormand as Sergeant Bryzynsky, the audience cannot always process the words said on stage. Chizzum’s opening performance is just the first indication as to the production’s proclivity to overwhelm the senses .

If Chizzum sounds a lot like “jizm,” it’s likely not a coincidence, which should be a clue as to the age appropriateness of this show. Several music numbers are adult takes on folk songs and other classic selections of aural Americana that tend to spring out of the performers with such spontaneity. So, don't take the kids. I suspect you don't want your child singing a sexually explicit version of "Yankee Doodle" while making suggestive hand-to-microphone gestures.

The production is scored not only by music but also by mechanical sounds, overlapping dialogue, jet engines and other blaring soundscapes creating a cacophonous chorus. The accompanying choreography also subverts typical notions of the musical. While much of it is folksy like the music, it and other movement is restrained both in physicality and through the limits imposed by the set. Though impressive in scale, the multi-angled set is not conducive to dance so much as continuous relocation along an X-Y axis particularly along the sloped back platform along which the actors stand, slide and climb throughout.

Over the course of the 90-minute performance, notions of isolation, individuality and life outside the armed forces rise above the sensory overload prompting the question: how does the NAVY disrupt one’s personal narrative? And on the contrary, how might it contribute to one’s own history? As for the show’s narrative, these existential queries may be as close as Atlantic gets to possessing a story. What Atlantic lacks in story, however, it makes up for with a talented cast, inventive staging and more than a few cleverly placed double entendres.

Even though the theatre is located on the third floor of a quiet New York City block, Atlantic takes its audience on a raucous ride with the U.S. military through the open seas on a big, burly boat. Civilians, welcome aboard.

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