Wooster Group points toward ‘North Atlantic’ again

"North Atlantic," coming to REDCAT, enters a claustrophobic world on a U.S. aircraft carrier.
(Paula Court / The Wooster Group)

After 35 years in the trenches, the Wooster Group has become New York’s quintessential experimental theater troupe. The Performing Garage, its gritty SoHo home, is a mecca for postmodern drama. And the internationally hailed company soon will launch its tenure as the resident theater ensemble at the city’s new Baryshnikov Arts Center.

But as they gathered recently to discuss their newest show, a revival of the 1983 drama “North Atlantic,” members of the trailblazing group voiced a common theme: They can’t wait to get to Los Angeles.

“It is so liberating for us to perform in Los Angeles,” said Elizabeth LeCompte, the company’s founder and director. “The audiences out there get what we do. Nobody’s worrying whether we’re going to ‘ruin’ serious theater. They want to have a good, enjoyable time. Period.”

LeCompte, who has been called the materfamilias of American avant-garde theater, pulled a parka and scarf closer around her as she sat with other cast members in their chilly, darkened offices. Scattered around were packing crates and other containers that will be shipped to Los Angeles for “North Atlantic’s” Wednesday opening at REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Manhattan ensemble is in the second year of a four-year residency, which marks a broadening of its national image.

“North Atlantic,” written for the ensemble by James Strahs, features performances by Francis McDormand (“Fargo”) and Maura Tierney (“ER”) as well as veteran members of the troupe. If past performances are any guide, it could be a bracing night on the boards. Blending caustic dialogue, retro-1980s gadgetry and unexpected snatches of classic musical theater, the show tells the story of an American aircraft carrier during the Cold War. Forget the heroic wartime motion pictures you’ve seen: This is an edgy, claustrophobic world where overheated military jargon, sarcastic doubletalk and smoldering sexual tensions between men and women collide.

“It’s amazing how much this show resonates each time it’s been done,” said company member Ari Fliakos, noting that the show had a 2000 New York revival and also has been performed in Europe. “Each time, it has a different meaning, whether it’s in the Cold War or during our own era. It’s a show about culture and language.”

The play seems well suited to Los Angeles audiences, he added. But the company’s decision to put down roots in Southern California -- a move underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Trust and the Nonprofit Finance Fund -- is not just about friendly customers.

LeCompte, a small, compact woman with blond hair, said the residency is also a spur to her creativity.

“Working in L.A. is like having the other part of my brain working, the mythic part of my imagination, because that’s what the city truly inspires,” she explained. “When we’re out there, the real celebrity is Los Angeles itself.”

To be sure, New York audiences have shown tremendous loyalty over the years to the Wooster Group. The company is known for taking classic works such as “Hamlet” and deconstructing them with an in-your-face barrage of music, video, tape loops and other media. In one recent production, “La Didone,” Francesco Cavalli’s obscure 17th century opera of the same name was incongruously blended with a screening of “Planet of the Vampires,” a 1965 Italian horror film.

LeCompte is a notoriously tough person to work for, demanding long hours and emotionally grueling sessions from her actors as they jointly create and rehearse new productions. Sometimes she erases the distinction between rehearsals and performances, giving notes during live shows to actors and tech crews who are wearing headsets.

With an ever-changing company that has included the late Spalding Gray, Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe, LeCompte has carved out a distinctive niche in the theater world, often with mixed results. “North Atlantic” is a case in point. New York Times drama critic Frank Rich savaged the show when it opened in 1983, calling it “vapid” and filled with “stale insights.”

“I’m surprised we were able to go on,” said LeCompte, shuddering at the memory. “At the time we were still a pretty young company. And luckily we had a good audience that didn’t pay so much attention to reviews, so it didn’t kill us.”

Her uncompromising style gained greater public acceptance over the next 17 years, and when Ben Brantley reviewed “North Atlantic’s” 2000 revival for the New York Times, he was bursting with praise: The drama critic lauded the “superb ensemble” and called the play “a robust song-and-dance spectacle . . . that does indeed bring to mind the keystone works of the American musical theater.”

As they move west, company members say it’s a relief to put the Gotham wars behind them, if only briefly. Kate Valk, who performs in “North Atlantic” and is assistant director, said Los Angeles “doesn’t have the burden of New York, where people say: ‘Is this Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off Broadway or avant-garde?’ ”

A key reason, she and others have suggested, is that Southern California theater audiences are typically more diverse than those in the Big Apple. They come from the worlds of film, music, art, television, literature, media and architecture as much as traditional drama, and they’re more receptive to adventurous, interdisciplinary approaches. That’s long been a key artistic priority for REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), which was opened by California Institute of the Arts in 2003.

“When you think about it, the Wooster Group is a wonderful match for the CalArts agenda,” said Mark Murphy, REDCAT’s executive director. “People who come to see theater in Los Angeles are very open to nontraditional performances. They’ve comfortable receiving information in visual ways, not just the spoken word.”

This multimedia approach is a key element in “North Atlantic,” which will feature new video material for its Los Angeles premiere. The set includes a military command desk tilted toward the audience at a 45-degree angle, plus TV screens and a profusion of 1980s electronic gadgetry, including reel-to-reel tape machines and turntables.

But actors are the heart of the show. McDormand, who previously performed in the company’s 2002 show, “To You, the Birdie!,” is well suited for her role as Master Sgt. Mary Bryzynsky, Valk said, noting that she “is very much the commanding officer. Fran has a take-charge quality, and this role fits her perfectly.” Tierney, who approached the group 18 months ago, expressing interest in working on a production, plays Cpl. Nurse Jane Babcock and is “tough, sensual and deadpan,” Valk added. “She’s a cute little tough cookie with a nice set of gams.”

It’s impossible to predict what audiences will take away from the production, and LeCompte doesn’t believe it’s her job to tell people what to think and feel.

“We’re in a constant process of re-education,” said LeCompte. “People come along now who see our plays and they really have no sense of history. They don’t know what happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, artistically or historically or politically. You have to begin again in a play, as if this is the first time. It’s something that we just have to do.”