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North Atlantic

Frances McDormand, Kate Valk, and Maura Tierney star in the Wooster Group's consistently perplexing yet riveting work about a military intelligence operation. logo
Frances McDormand and Kate Valk in North Atlantic
(© Steven Gunther)
You won't spend a microsecond of the Wooster Group's North Atlantic, now at the Jerome Robbins Theatre at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, in a state of boredom, but perplexity -- of the pleasurable, anything-could-happen kind -- is pretty much guaranteed. A whole lot of this play, including its many campy musical interludes, is fairly incomprehensible.

James Strahs' text, commissioned in 1982 and now in its second revival under artistic director Elizabeth LeCompte's ultra-frenetic direction, posits a U.S. naval unit ostensibly posted off the Dutch coast to collect Cold War intelligence. Then again, as smirky, fast-talking Captain Roscoe Chizzum (Ari Fliakos, whose verbal velocity reaches such rapid-fire speed, you'd swear it was beyond the range of human capability) confides to a pair of pipsqueak privates (Steve Cuiffo and Zachary Oberzan), the whole operation could be an elaborate ruse.

But it sure feels like the military, especially once the crew's putative leader, General Lance "Rod" Benders (Paul Lazar), an ineffectual lech who admits to having purchased all his promotions, brings in an army consultant, Colonel Ned Lud (Scott Shepherd), whose function is as nebulous as his people skills are nil. Lud tries to ingratiate himself with dud off-color jokes, and Chizzum is having none of it. The power struggle -- to the death -- is on.

Jim Clayburgh's inventive stage design gives us a cutaway view of the ship quarters, with an interesting twist. While the male servicemen strut about downstage, a bevy of female adjutants man various vintage recording devices on a tilted platform upstage. Their office is set at a serious slant, presenting challenges to balance as they go about their intricate and carefully choreographed duties, tapping and taping.

The women start off mostly speaking in synch, but distinctive personalities soon emerge. Got up in a jaunty cap and kilt, like a freeze-dried WWII-era WAVE, Ann (Kate Valk) may have the job title "word-processor," but her primary duty consists of conscripting fresh meat for the general's delectation: tonight's pretext will be a "Miss G.I. Dream Girl Wet Uniform Contest" at the officers' club. Dishy nurse Jane (Maura Tierney) has been anointed the next sacrificial sex object and is eager to test her mettle: as incentive, the general even offers her "a crack at one of the prisoners."

Tierney -- when not dressed up in a musty prom dress for the festivities (she also sports a gag and noose necklace) -- also ends up portraying a couple of the international interrogatees: a French intellectual and an American princess who is furious that her Mom failed to provide her with a princess phone.

Meanwhile, a brass-tacks master sergeant (played by Frances McDormand) could very well be the brains behind this mission, whatever it is. Or maybe another prisoner, the babushka'd "Dutch mother" (also played by McDormand) whose translated testimony holds the key to this crazy-brilliant theatrical exercise: "I know that peace will come," she fervently intones, "on an incomprehensible bridge of bodies."

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