If you drive through the San Gabriel Mountains, where radio reception is already dodgy, set the dial on the scan mode. Every three seconds or so, you'll get a new frequency, a new station, sometimes bathed in static. Some country-and-western crooner with his heart on his sleeve will crash into a fire-and-brimstone sermon on the Second Coming, which melts into a mariachi band, to a sliver of a Schubert Mass, to Miley Cyrus, to a rapper going off on some skanky ho. Round and round it goes, wavelength after wavelength, an audio collage of our pop culture dodging in and around the pine trees at 7,000 feet. You could be on a satellite, hurtling through outer space, picking up the shadow presences of Planet Earth, the voices of our commerce and pop culture.
Years ago, NASA launched into space a rocket containing humanity's greatest artifacts — Beethoven's symphonies, Shakespeare's sonnets, the Theory of Relativity, renderings by Galileo — so that should we become extinct, some intelligent life-form far away might fathom a sense of who we once were.
The almost brooding sense of our mortality, and lingering shadow presences, have formed the cartilage of the most recent performances by New York–based performance troupe the Wooster Group. (They present their latest, James Strahs' North Atlantic, at REDCAT through February 21.) Last year's opera-mashup La Didone — as gentle and ornate as North Atlantic is assaultive and vulgar — hung on the feeling that Francesco Cavalli's 1641 opera had been catapulted into the outer stratosphere, where it floated in the ether of company director Elizabeth LeCompte's imagination.
That brooding quality isn't anywhere near the surface of North Atlantic — a joke-inverting South Pacific and its blend of sugary romance, exotic locales, islanders and the U.S. military. Rather, it's what you take away after the aural bombast — the screeching aircraft overhead, the countless bone-rattling explosions and the song-and-dance numbers (including "Git Along Little Doggies," "Back in the Saddle" and "Yankee Doodle," sprinkled in among Bach's "Come Sweet Death" and an excerpt from Tristan and Isolde.)
Strahs' play is set in 1983 aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier floating somewhere off the Dutch coast, where post–World War II and Cold War paranoia have resulted in this intelligence-gathering operation among enlisted men and women. A quintet of women (Kate Valk, Frances McDormand, Jenny Seastone-Stern, Koosil-ja Hwang and Maura Tierney) spend much of the play threading audiotape through sprockets dotted across a chest-high mantle that traverses the enormous width of Jim Clayburgh's set. Meanwhile, they try to keep their balance upon the absurdly raked stage, which also allows for characters to slip-slide into position. Strahs' dialogue consists of military-movie/musical-theater dialogue-jargon pulled from the sockets of the 1950s via the 1983 setting, with pliers of parody. So everything we see and hear is a kind of echo: The distant resonances of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" are converted into dialogue that treats rim jobs as an aspect of romance.
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The plot — which is almost irrelevant, but they must have felt compelled to include one — concerns newcomer Colonel Lloyd "Ned" Lud's (Scott Shepherd) entrance into the sexually charged-frustrated company of Captain Roscoe Chizzum (Ari Fliakos), General Lance "Rod" Benders (Paul Lazar), Private Walter "Raj" Doberman (Steve Cuiffo) and Marine Private Bernard "Gregory" Houlihan (Zachary Oberzan) — and, of course, the sexually charged and frustrated women. These are the people consigned to gather snippets of the world's most important, secret conversations and thereby keep the peace. This concept, and its treatment, go a long way to explaining why the world is as violent as it is.
There's one larger point — that their entire self-important operation is actually a decoy for the "real" operation that's being done 500 miles away. So even the shadows and echoes we're seeing and hearing (orignal soundtracks by Bob Cardelli, original music and arrangement by Eddy Dixon) are shadows and echoes of shadows and echoes.
LeCompte's visual compositions and choreography are as pristine as the perfectly wry performances that approach the line of mugging without crossing over. The production is, frankly, an assault. I left in a dither. It was in recovery, however, that I gained an appreciation and respect for what I'd been subjected to. Were this a mere head trip, more "deconstruction" for the sake of some too-clever joke, I'd have written it off. What lingers, however, is a kind of soulfulness — maybe from the brief use of that Bach song "Come Sweet Death" — that puts the entire charade in the context of all the technology and industry that, as we hurtle through space in the 21st century, are proving to be what we're living and dying for, as a species. After the explosions and roaring aircraft had subsided, I kept hearing that Bach, like a recording of something between a lament and prayer, buried in the rubble.
NORTH ATLANTIC | By JAMES STRAHS | Performed by THE WOOSTER GROUP | Presented by REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Through February 21 | (213) 237-2800.