The Wooster Group returns

New York's coolest avant-gardists hit the high seas.

It’s easy to get disoriented at the Wooster Group’s current production. Bewildered by the uniforms, GIs doing the hula and the occasional razzle-dazzle song-and-dance number, you might assume you’ve stumbled into South Pacific, albeit one updated with Cold War paranoia. Hey! The Rodgers and Hammerstein estate finally got hip to postmodernism, you’d think. But gradually you would notice that the songs sound like dirty playground ditties, the gender dynamics are decidedly bleak, and the dead characters don’t fall down. Relax: You are at the Group’s fun-house-mirror musical, North Atlantic, and the linguistic somersaults have only just begun.

Attempting to describe the position of the vaunted Wooster Group leads to embarrassing hyperbole. For more than three decades, the troupe (under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte) has produced seminal works from Rumstick Road (1976) all the way to last year’s opera--sci-fi mash-up of La Didone. From its Performing Garage on Wooster Street, the Group has sent out steady shock waves of aesthetic endeavor: Its technical innovations and multitrack nonnarratives have permanently pushed the theatrical form upward.

At a recent rehearsal on designer Jim Clayburgh’s steeply inclined industrial set, that metaphor of ascendance becomes literal. Clinging to the perpendicular construction is—well—everybody. Wooster Group core members (Scott Shepherd, Ari Fliakos and the company’s magnetic diva, Kate Valk) teeter alongside regular visitors (Frances McDormand, scene-stealing Paul Lazar) and a handful of newbies, including television star Maura Tierney (ER) and Zachary Oberzan, on loan from those gentle souls at the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Oberzan has just dropped off a rope, slid down a 70-degree rake and disappeared under the stage. Don’t worry; he’ll be fine.

That’s because despite the precipitous slope and a cheerful disorganization (“This is a low level of chaos for us,” confides sound designer Bruce Odland amid the mayhem), the Woosters are navigating familiar waters. North Atlantic first swung round in 1983, when James Strahs wrote the expressionist sex farce about an aircraft carrier’s randy crew as a Wooster collaboration with the Globe Theater in Eindhoven, Holland. In New York, the show lost its Dutch participants and folded in then--company members Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray and Ron Vawter. After Vawter’s death and Gray’s departure from the group, LeCompte restaged it in 2000.

So, why revisit something so thoroughly revisited? In an office at the Performing Garage, company members conducted the TONY interview as they do most things: collectively. A few queries in, McDormand was already lobbing her own questions. “Is this your 'crowd-pleaser’?” she asks LeCompte, who demurs. “No. When we first did it, we got trashed,” the director recalls. “It requires a generation of theatergoers that watches South Park—serious-minded, yet ironic. It had to find its audience.” McDormand pooh-poohs her. “Well, it found us. I tell you: It’s practically a recruitment video. When I saw it, remember? I told you to sign me up.”

The film actor’s eagerness for a second tour of duty (she also appeared in 2002’s To You, the Birdie!) was one impetus for the revival. In addition, Valk wanted to work with someone who could give her “what the boys have: a peer, someone to play with,” and the script’s repurposed military-speak fits perfectly into McDormand’s muscular style. There were other reasons, too. Shepherd looks at North Atlantic as an existential exercise. “In the past few years we’ve been looking back at the people who came before us,” he says. “This time, instead of Jerzy Grotowski [one of the subjects of their Poor Theater], we’re looking back on our own company. These shows that come back around make you check in with yourself.” And then (naturally), LeCompte disagrees. “For me, it’s one big ribbon of work,” she asserts. “It’s not the past at all.”

And so she’s still tinkering. Playwright Strahs has moved beyond the group’s circle: Rumor has him in Vermont, and he shows no interest in the remount. Luckily, the company has always thought of the reams of hyperverbal text as raw material. Only a few days from their opening in Los Angeles, lines were still being excavated from old versions of the script.

Such labor may not exactly be toiling in the salt mines, but it’s intense. Fans of the company’s intellectual palimpsests might be surprised to see how they create their densely layered effects. Essentially, each performer embroiders comic bits and then petitions LeCompte to include them. “Put that in the zinger file!” she laughs, when Odland mocks up the sound of Marines falling overboard. If they can’t use it, there’s always the next incarnation. “It gains from having older people coming in,” notes McDormand. “I’m here to prove that a 52-year-old woman can do this. We really ought to restage it when we’re 70...a bunch of veterans still out there roaming the North Atlantic.” Everybody laughs, but theater lovers: Better mark your calendars for 2028.

North Atlantic is playing at 37 Arts through Apr 25.

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