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Stage Raw

Stage Raw: The Wooster Group's "North Atlantic"

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Mon, Feb 15, 2010 at 4:26 PM
THE 31ST ANNUAL L.A. WEEKLY THEATER AWARDS

ECHO CHAMBERS
Resonances from The Wooster Group's North Atlantic

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Ground Control to Major Tom Photo by Paula Court

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 new frequency, a new station, sometimes bathed in static. Some country 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, wobbling in and out of a clear audio zone. 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.

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(North Altantic, Continued:)

Years ago, NASA launched a rocket into space containing humanity's greatest artifacts --- Beethoven symphonies, Shakespeare's sonnets, the Theory of Relativity, renderings by Galileo - in the event that had 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, has 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 amongst 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-WWII and Cold War paranoia has 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 audio-tape 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" gets converted into dialogue that treats rim jobs as an aspect of romance.

The plot - which is almost irrelevant, but they must have felt compelled to include one - concerns newcomer, Colonel Lloyd "Ned" Lud (Scott Shepherd) 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-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 as actually a decoy for the "real" operation that's being done 500 miles away. So even the shadows and echoes that we're seeing and hearing (orignal sound tracks by Bob Cardelli, original music and arrangement by Eddy Dixon) are shadows and echoes of shadows and echoes.

Le-Compte'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 that technology and industry that, as we hurtle through space in the 21st century, is 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 rubble.

NORTH ATLANTIC | By JAMES STRAHS | Performed by THE WOOSTER GROUP | Presented by REDCAT, 631 W. Second Street, downtown | through February 21. (213) 237-2800

NEW CAPSULE REVIEWS (scheduled for publication February 18, 2010

NEW REVIEW THE ANTARCTIC CHRONICLES

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In his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog described the denizens of Antarctica's McMurdo base as wanderers who tumbled down to the South Pole for lack of roots attaching them to anywhere sane. Jessica Manuel doesn't seem to fit the profile: the perky Minnesotan homecoming queen left home, family and boyfriend to spend a year cranking fuel valves in the Antarctic's -80 F permanent midnight. Why? To escape the normalcy she saw as a noose. Her solo show traffics in the exotic mundane -- it's an insider scoop on what the heck people eat, drink and do at the bottom of the earth (Answer: Tater Tots, booze, and harass the newbies.) Directed by Paul Linke, Manuel tells her story in a cheerleader's squeal. Thematically, it's as thin as ice, but Manuel dishes on the slow onset of winter insanity and shares how the total snow madness boredom inspired Herzog's gang of adventurers to start their own theater troupe. Hudson Guild Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Wed., 8 p.m.; thru March 10. (323) 960-7744. (Amy Nicholson)

NEW REVIEW CATCH THE TIGER

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Photo courtesy of Dramastage Qumran

Vicki Robinson plays a denizen/chanteuse in a NYC diner, and when she breaks into song, for a blues ditty or a ballad, Melvin Ishmael Johnson's biodrama about Jamaican-born black separatist Marcus Garvey (Isaac Clay) springs to life - particularly with the great supporting sound system. Robinson's voice caresses and slithers, alternating between gentleness and power. It's the kind of modulation that's desperately needed in Johnson's play, and McNeil's staging of it. The plot starts in 1916, when what would have been the 21-year-old J. Edgar Hoover (Daniel Taylor), was newly appointed to the Justice Department, obsessed on bringing charges against Garvey, and getting him deported. The play shows what Hoover and the FBI are famous for, infiltration and betrayal. Garvey is "the Tiger" though all he does is wander around the stage and make speeches, culminating with the phrase "Africa for Africans" -- repeated at least four times. It's also in the program, in case you missed it from the stage. The hollow speechifying seems sufficient to earn Garvey the adoration of most of the characters in the play, as well as the contempt of J. Edgar Hoover, played by Smith with a cadaverous comportment and the hesitant delivery of someone who doesn't quite know what we wants, or why. So if the cat and his would-be slayer are both so inert, there's little else to say. The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (323) 850-4436. A Dramastage Qumran production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

NEW REVIEW GO THE COLOR PURPLE Patrons standing outside the Pantages for last weekend's performance of The Color Purple were understandably miffed when it was announced that because of illness, American Idol glamgirl Fantasia would not be performing. But, to trot out the cliché, the show must go on: Brandi Chavone Massey acquitted herself superbly in the Fantasia's role of Celie, the long suffering abused child who gradually transforms into a paradigm of self-sufficiency and proud womanhood. But Celie's painful journey is also a story about the enduring power of the human spirit, and love in its myriad forms. Massey effortlessly plowed through one song after another, never missing a note, and her acting was every bit as impressive. Marsha Norman's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, (music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Alee Willis, and Stephen Bray), crackles with energy, notwithstanding some awkward plot twists, and a second act that languishes. This is a show that's hard not to get swept up in. The mix of gospel, blues and jazz is as alluring as Paul Tazewell's colorful array of costumes, and Donald Byrd's choreography. Gary Griffin directs. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Feb. 28. http://www.BroadwayLA.org (800) 982-ARTS. (Lovell Estell III)

NEW REVIEW GO THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES

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Photo by Michael Lamont

"The Female of the species is more deadly than the male," wrote Rudyard Kipling just about 100 years ago. That might well be the theme of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith's satire of all things that have fallen into the gender divide over the past 40 years, at least. The comedy is set in the library/living-room in the secluded, country home of Margot Mason (Annette Bening), a sardonic wit and author of feminist self-help books. (Bening's take is perfectly competent, though narrow in range). Margot struggles to meet an impending deadline for a book she's barely started when an interloper named Molly Rivers (Merrit Wever) wanders in through the French doors (Takeshi Kata designed the detailed, realistic set). Based on a real-life incident involving such an intrusion upon author Germaine Greer, and after blustering out some fake adoration for the famous author, Molly pulls out a pistol and threatens to kill Margot for her sequence of celebrity-motivated, contradictory exegeses that, Molly believes, were responsible for her own mother's suicide. (The despondent woman allegedly clutched a copy of Margot's The Cerebral Vagina, before hurling herself under a moving train.) Enter Margot's daughter Tess (a particularly fine Mireille Enos), traumatized by her mother's decades of neglect and contempt for her daughter "settling" into a married life with a nice if dim-witted hedge-fund investor named Bryan (an endearing turn by David Arquette). ("I love you Tess. You know I've always mounted you on a pedestal.") A hausfrau in crisis somewhere between despair and oblivion, Tess has no complaint with Molly's intention to murder her mother in cold blood. Add to the mix (yes, it's a very busy day for an author who desires only to be left alone to write) Molly's macho taxi driver, Frank (Josh Stamberg), furious because Molly stiffed him - because he wouldn't stop talking about how his wife just left him. Margot's publisher, Theo (Julian Sands) also shows up and resolves a lingering question of genealogy. (The farce is not intended to hold up a mirror to life's most probable outcomes.) When cabbie Frank finally grows a pair and starts ordering Tess around, her eyes light up and her shoulder straps flip down. It's a feminist's nightmare, as is the entire play. It's also a comedy of the ilk George Bernard Shaw might have written had he lived another 100 years, though he probably would have left out the gun, which the characters spend most of the play ignoring anyway. Of course this is a joke about hostage plays; it also reveals how the person holding the gun may not actually possess all the power, especially if there's enough wit from the playwright and the people who don't hold the gun. There are enough funny lines to keep an evening of repartee and satire from imploding, especially under Randall Arney's sure-footed direction, yet the comedy does skewer one of the most pressing social debates of the 1980s, like a vehicle that's been spinning in a swamp for some time. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru March 14. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris)

NEW REVIEW GO NORTH ATLANTIC James Strahs' play is set in 1983 aboard a U.A. aircraft carrier floating somewhere off the Dutch coast, where post WWII and Cold War paranoia has resulted in this intelligence-gathering operation among enlisted men and women. REDCAT, 631 W. Second Street, downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through February 21. (213) 237-2800. The Wooster Group. See Theater feature.

NEW REVIEW ON CARING FOR THE BEAST

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Photo by Ricardo Miranda

The average layperson planning to see director-playwright Shishir Kurup's somewhat bewildering metaphysical fantasy would be well-advised to bring along a beginner's guide to Dharmic religious traditions. For Kurup's heady, 2001 dramatic excavation of the meanings of truth -- the modern corruptions as well as the more ancient, unadulterated permutations -- is virtually awash in the symbology, deities and philosophy of Tantric and Jainist mysticism. The latest entry in Cornerstone Theater's ongoing Justice Cycle opens in the subdivided home of landlord/earth mother/amateur trance-channeler Mae (Page Leong), whose domestic tranquility is quickly turning into a world of hurt. Her gay tenant Charlie's (Marcenus "MC" Earl) terminal bone disease has just entered its painful, chronic phase, which drives his desperate, university-professor lover, Art (Michael Cooke), to undertake a crash course in psychic healing. Neighbor Alissa's (Bahni Turpin) book-project profile of the enigmatic Dr. Narayan (Amro Salama), a repentant, U.S.-trained military torturer, sends her and musician boyfriend Sean (Justin Gordon) into the masochistic deep end in their quest to mentally transcend physical suffering. The lives of all concerned are unexpectedly turned upside-down when Mae accidentally channels the mother goddess, Kali, and the house is blasted with a bolt of her creative energy. Though the play's spiritual speculations can plod and even overwhelm, for we cynical, secular humanists, Kurup's elegant staging (featuring designer Tom Ontiveros' lovely lights and video projections) and a world-class ensemble prove the perfect sugar to help the New Age go down. Inner City Arts, 720 Kohler St., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Wed., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 24, www.CornerstoneTheater.org. (213) 627-9621. A Cornerstone Theater production. (Bill Raden)

NEW REVIEW GO A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER

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Photo by Neil Reinhold

A sweltering New York City summer; Son of Sam is still at large. A massive citywide blackout is around the corner. The year is 1977, and on the verge of bankruptcy, a city barely keeps it together, not unlike Detectives Francis Kelly (Kevin Brief) and Jack Delasante (Matthew J. Williamson), two of NYPD's finest who have nabbed two of its worst: Jimmy Rosario, a.k.a. Jimmy Rosehips (Matthew Thompson), and Simon Cohn, a.k.a. Sean de Kahn (Gary Lamb). A drycleaning store gets held up. Its owner, Mrs. Linowitz, is shot point blank. There's hell to pay, especially when the boys in blue have no qualms about beating a confession out of these low-life suspects. Problem is, Jimmy and Simon are no rookies, and their ability to manipulate the demons that plague the seemingly hardboiled Kelly and Delasante turns up the sweltering July heat inside the police station. First performed at the Public Theater in 1978, this revival of Thomas Babe's gritty interrogation drama is masterfully orchestrated by director Albert Alarr, whose fluid blocking and brutally realistic fight choreography make full use of Sarah Krainin's impeccably authentic set. The entire ensemble shines, showcasing both the humor and the suffocating pain of a text that poignantly explores "the light" and "the dark" sides of our natures. (The show does contain full-frontal nudity.) Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., N. Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru March 6. (800) 838-3006. http://www.brownpapertickets.com (Mayank Keshaviah)

NEW REVIEW SEASCAPE WITH SHARKS AND DANCER While walking on a Cape Cod beach, writer Ben (Matthew Hannon) spots a naked young woman, Tracy (Christine Weatherup), floundering in the sea. He pulls her ashore, and takes her back to his rundown beach house to recuperate -- but she's far from grateful. She wasn't drowning, she claims, but dancing. Despite the fact that she's rude, arrogant, selfish and demanding, he's enchanted, and after some hot chocolate and sparring, they tumble into bed. Dan Nigro's play starts out as a kooky "meet cute" comedy, then segues into a quietly harrowing portrait of a certain kind of destructive relationship. She's convinced that no one can love her, and therefore he'll inevitably leave her. So she constantly threatens to leave him, but never does, and he cares for her enough to endure the pain and uncertainty she inflicts on him. Weatherup's Tracy is an emotionally volatile woman riddled with conflicts, manipulative, and pathologically self-destructive, while Hannon's Ben is reduced to pure victim and enabler because of his refusal to fight back. Director Benjamin Haber Kamine elicits persuasive performances from his actors, and keeps the proceedings interesting, though a sharper focus on Ben's character might have made for a better balance. Studio/Stage, 520 North Western Avenue, Los Angeles; Wed.-Thurs., 8 p.m., Sun. Feb. 21 & 28, 8 p.m.; thru March 5 http://www.sharksanddancer.com/tickets (Neal Weaver)

NEW REVIEW TITUS ANDRONICUS

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Photo by Kiff Scholl

Heads are chopped off. A woman, after being raped, has her hands severed and tongue ripped away. Babies are impaled on knives. And, at a special feast, a malicious woman is served her sons, baked in a pie. Yes, here is proof (if needed) that Shakespeare could actually get hired today as a staff writer for CSI: New York. Director Thomas Craig Elliot's somber production of Shakespeare's epic of pulp fiction possesses a murky, intimate mood that has you feeling like you're watching atrocities unfolding in an urban back alley. The creepy, almost claustrophobic tone is abetted by designer Erin Brewster's calculatedly grubby set - brick walls, with shadowy platforms full of mysterious dark pits and doorways. Roman noble Titus Andronicus (Dan Mailley) returns to his home, triumphant after war with the Goths, and helps to install oily politician Saturninus (Brad C. Light) as emperor. Titus' reward for this? Saturninus humiliates him by marrying Tamora (Sarah Lilly), the very same warrior queen whom Andronicus just defeated and enslaved. Tamora's sons then rape and mutilate Titus's daughter Lavinia (Erin Fleming). Titus then invites Tamora and family over for a feast - at which revenge is served by the pie-full. If anything, Elliot's production is slightly too straightforward and contextually threadbare. Although the dialogue is articulately rendered, the stagecraft is prosaic and unambitious - the violence is strangely reigned in and the piece's omnipresent gloom and grubbiness are simply not sensational enough to spark the horror the play requires. Admittedly, Elliot commendably emphasizes characterization, and the staging digs into the text to find motivations for the coterie of increasingly heartless characters. Lilly's elegantly wicked Tomara - shifting easily from graciously sugary to venomously witchy - is a pleasure to watch, and so is Light's dopey Saturninus - a greasy politician who turns out to be out of his depth in the wickedness with which he's confronted. Mailley's stiff and priggish turn during the play's first half is at first offputting, but his gradual decline into rage and madness becomes compellingly chilling. Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru March 13. (323) 856-8611. http://theatreofnote.com (Paul Birchall)

NEW REVIEW GO TWELFTH NIGHT Why set Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the '80s? The clothes, mostly -- the prankster Sir Toby Belch (Bill Robertson) belongs in a Hawaiian shirt. It's also the decade where the men of MTV, be they Boy George or Bret Michaels, slicked on lipgloss, thus making shipwrecked maiden Viola's (Andrea Gwynnel Morgan) decision to dress in male drag on trend. Viola, aka Cesario, loves Orsino (William Mendieta), Orsino loves Olivia (Rebecca Angel), and Olivia loves Cesario. But Aaron Morgan's likable staging gives equal weight to drunken good time gang Belch, Maria (Anne Nemer), and Sebastian (Joseph Baird) as they make mischief with dour Malvolio (Henning Fischer). Casual and charming with an unexpected jolt of sexual energy when all the couples are tidily paired, this production best finds its voice when Feste the Jester (Devin J. Begley) grabs his guitar and croons "Boys Don't Cry" in a timbre that mates Johnny Cash and Ian Curtis. At this party, any love child is possible. Chrysalis Stage. Vic Lopez Auditorium, 12417 E. Philadelphia St., Whittier; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (562) 212-1991. http://chrysalisstage.com (Amy Nicholson)

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