With members like Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray and Steve Buscemi, the Wooster Group, like Chicagos Steppenwolf Theater, uses sound and image and even video to explore the kinds of stories that can be told onstage. And sometimes they leave the Performing Garage in Manhattan and take their shows on the road. The Wooster Group arrived in Paris the other day to perform several plays over the next few weeks, beginning with the Cold War romp, North Atlantic, which features Dafoe in a lead role.
Its PR material describes the play:
North Atlantic was first developed by the Wooster Group in 1983. North Atlantic takes a satiric look at how our culture at the end of the 20th Century has been shaped by the rising influence of technology and the role of the military after the Vietnam Wall and before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The play is about an international peacekeeping force with a secret mission, on board an aircraft carrier in the north Atlantic Ocean, and the cultural and sexual dynamics that rise to the fore.
This would be on one hand an apt description of the play from a distance, but not what happens as we watch it. Rather, it is an assault on the senses, and is mostly, when not a song-and-dance number, a bit unpleasant, as all evocative art should be. There is rarely silence; everything is turned up to 11, the slang riff-raff voiced all over the stage, phone calls, the unceasing winding and unwinding of reel to reel tapes and the deafening woosh of airplanes taking off and landing. Even the bittersweet melody Back in the Saddle Again is sung through a bullhorn.
Art about military conflict is probably more interesting during an actual one, and based on the Delillo-esque description in the publicity material, I was intrigued how this 18-year old play would add to the discourse of these uncertain times. What we have is an interesting, vexing hour and a halfan angry, ribald antidote to South Pacific.
It seems an interesting notion to perform a play in a language that is foreign to the country that is receiving it. Certainly it would attract native English speakers, but the intelligentsia in the audience are French, those that attend all significant cultural eventsspeakers of English yes, but they surely experience the play differently than a native speaker. North Atlantic is a difficult play to follow for anyone, as the dialogue jumps out of the mouths of characters all over the stage giving line readings at a frenetic pace as if they are in a 1940s newsroom film. The playbill includes a sort of Cliff Notes synopsis of each scene in French, which I thought I might need to glance at on occasion myself. I began to hear the play through the ears of the audience, wondering if they would understand the wordplay, the crass sexual terms andbeing citizens of a country where only government buildings fly flagsthe ridiculous notions of jingoism. Is there a disconnect between performer and audience when performing to an audience in a foreign land? For the native speakers here, expatriates more than travelers, there was a buzz in the air before the show. A quality play in English (a bit of an oasis, since the plays in English that Ive seen most advertised are usually silly wedding romps and bedroom farces that feature excessive amounts of Frenglish/Franglais humor), but also one that takes joy in speaking in the vernacular, delighting in the English words , even when they are malicious ones, maliciously spoken. And then there are the song and dance numbers, everything from "Dust in the Wind" to "Theres a Place in France" to "Yankee Doodle" to "Git Along Little Dogies." French or English or Sanskrit, language barriers be damned, because musicals always make audiences smile.
Actually, it is quite fitting to take this show on the road, and not because of its look at the military. Beyond politics, it comes back to a more perennial concern, that of communication and language itself, with its interrogations, argot and the joys of how people talk and express unsavory ideas. The job of the characters themselves is to listen to what appears to be code or secrets in foreign languages. The stage is vaulted, with a narrow foreground, then a long audio console above, set on a 60 degree angle allowing the audience a bit of an overhead view of the reel to reels, and the women operating them, unundated with words, words, words. These women are dressed like 1940s ceremonial female military personnel with the attendent hairstyles. They speak often in unison, mocking the roles asigned to them, or like Dorothy Parker, with the men joining them at the Round Table. And similarly, it is a battle of wit and honest to goodness good black humor against chauvinistic bad jokes told by the men. Men that are insecure and predatory, but also scared and just aware enough of the hypocrisy of their various deeds, which often makes for an unpleasant combination.
The writer of this play, James Strahs, has been accused of creative unpleasantness before, or at least of being an unsympathetic character himself. Twenty-eight years ago he published a mémoire of his time as a draft dodger, entitled Seed Journal, about his time in England, Canada, India and beyond as he evaded Vietnam service; Annie Gottlieb reviewed it on July 1st 1973 for the New York Times :
[The book] does expose some themes and images of a disturbed young American male psyche: sadistic fantasies longing for tenderness and fears of being made female and concerns with fertile manhoodwith the quality and fate of ones seed.
Strah continues to explore these ideas in North Atlantic. We hear of these mens wishes for sexual conquest of the ladies, and the ladies cynical talk amongt themselves of what is necessary to do. The characters have names like Chizzum, Babcock, Pusey, Benders, Doberman and Ludnames of sexual innuendo, alcoholism, aggression and even anti-technology sentiments. A bit heavy-handed, but its tongue in cheek quality, from its character names to it death scene to its debt to Catch-22 and MASH, lets us know it is in on the joke as well.
As we settle into the play, we begin to see that it is a performance of performance. First about the theatricality of military protocols and excercises. But beyond that, it is a spectacle about performance itself; the play drives this point home by the actors use of handheld microphones and direct address to us. There is apparent role playing, but it is not explicitly clear if the actor who is doubling as another character, or the character play-acting as another character. In the midst of an interrogation of a woman, a Dutch prisoner, the prisoner herself interrupts her translator to suddenly, in perfect American English, correct a translation of a word in her emotionally-wrenching confession. The artifice is being mocked. We watch the play like a talk show, like a cabaret. The actors, with their jokey deliveries and unexpected, out of place musical numbers look out at us like the amused karaoke performer, gleeful with impugnity. North Atlantic is the anti-sitcom, and we are the live studio audience, humbled and disturbed into submission.
What is the meaning of performing a self-critical play, one that explores the issues of American military, cultural and sexual domination, in a country that already accuses the United States of these things? In other words, should the U.S. State Department be telling the Wooster Group to pipe down? Ah, if only Art mattered that much these days in world affairs Hollywoods fear that it isnt polite to release terrorist thrillers these days. Despite its issues, North Atlantic isnt performed like a political polemic. Its fierceness makes it first and foremost art, not political tract. Some would say that a plays responsibility is to tell us a story, not how to vote, so to speak. And this is apparently an even more interesting notion in Europe. Elizabeth LeCompte, who has been directing the play since its inception in 1983, and this production as well, gave a talk to MFA students at Columbia Universitys Theater Division in Febuary of 2000. She was asked by a German student if the plays she directs have a message for the audience or if they are just entertainment. She responded :
This is a question we often get in Europe. We dont get it often in the United States. I think it is interesting because I think that theater is a serious art form that has to have social relevance in Germany. In fact, it has to be liberal or left wing. And here, in America , I work as an artist, not as a theater person; I work from a different place. I think what I learned over the last 25 years touring a lot in Germany and Europe and coming here is that it is anathema to say, I just do it because I love it, and, I just do it because I want to have fun. If I go to Germany, that is horrifying to them. You must have some message, [they say]. I find that when I go to schools sometimes. But I have to admit that I studied painting and did anyone ever ask me, what is your message in this painting? No, no. They just said, you are an artist and you are expressing yourself.
LeCompte added later that, entertainment is not light. Entertainment is for me, very hard. This is also true for the work of her husband, Willem Dafoe. Dafoe, on both stage and screen, has a magnetism, an attractiveness that swirls around in a skullish, harsh face and speaks in a nasal, impatient voice. He is the first on the stage in this show, walking to its center with a microphone as if he is going to inform us of some kind of news. He is wearing captains uniform and his short hair is pasted down. You say to yourself, there he is, I wondered if he really looked like this and talked like that and you try to divorce it from his other work but you cannot. When you see him doing a silly dance, you may think, how un-Platoon. Or when he is ranting and raving with profanity about death, it is very unlike Jesus, and his manner in Last Temptation of Christ. And that is the point; roles can follow an actor not just as obstructive typecasting, but as friendly and ironic ghosts. They can sometimes inform the character the actor is presently playing, like Brandos entire career informs the character Paul in Last Tango in Paris. And, of course, their names alone sell tickets. We can talk about marketing, and marquee value, with Dafoes face on the cover of the playbill but also in mulitiple Paris culture weeklies, or we can talk about the piece of art. Dafoe, from his two-decade long involvement with the text nails the essence of the play, its creepy humor and menace seeping through.
Naturally North Atlantic is critical of U.S. hegemony (making it all the more interesting to see in country where many are critical of too much American cultural influence), on all fronts, and probably rightfully so. And it also suggests an inneffectiveness at times, that is borne out of this role of World Policeman. This is illustrated by the repeated suggestion by some in the crew that they are a proxy, not contributing to the Cold War effort, but are just performing for themselves, like inmates at an asylum. And still, above all, we are entertained. The play ends with sound and fury as the carrier seems to be beached, in a land far from the north of the Atlantic ocean. They are surprised to be anywhere near land at all , in the presence of others. What the Fuck is Going On !?, Chizzum yells, not so much because he doesnt know what will happen next, but that there is an audience at all.