Experimental theater doesn’t come any livelier or more entertaining than the Wooster Group’s “North Atlantic,” a 1984 military-cliche collage trotted out for inspection every few years by helmer Elizabeth Lecompte. Currently amusing and puzzling audiences at REDCAT, having enlisted Frances McDormand and “ER”‘s Maura Tierney as guest artists, the experience is akin to dropping peyote buttons during a WWII movie marathon. But however Dada the experience becomes, it never loses sight of the quintessentially American attitudes fueling its satire.

James Strahs’ text is nominally set aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier off the Dutch coast circa 1983, but its frames of reference are all “Good War” determination and Cold War paranoia. On the lower bridge of Jim Clayburgh’s multitiered set, spit’n’polish Naval intelligence officer Roscoe Chizzum (Ari Fliakos) harangues his able seamen with a tight-lipped line of Right Stuff patter delivered like a tobacco auctioneer: “You’re as useless as a nun suckin’ on a lizard head….Y’all look like so many whiplash victims on some prototype roller coaster.”

Chizzum repeatedly clashes with Army Col. Ned Lud (Scott Shepherd) over – as best as one can make out – how to interrogate suspected enemy agents and collaborators. (From Holland?) Or maybe we’re just supposed to accept interservice rivalry as one more given cliche. Their confrontations carry heat, whatever they’re based upon.

Up top in the ship’s nerve center, a corps of WAVEs and WACs led by MSgt. Mary (McDormand) tap messages and monitor reel-to-reel tapes like Gandhi intent on his loom, while intoning unison non sequiturs into microphones. (If you recall the speaking chorus in “Leader of the Pack” – “Oh yeah? Where’d you meet him?” – you’ve got the sound perfectly).

The big excitement is an upcoming all-ship Wet Uniform Contest to be supervised by cluelessly horny General Benders (Paul Lazar), who spends most of the voyage flirting with his dames at sea.

A fast-paced 90 minutes involves a nonstop surge of character and locale transformation, including an extended segue into a sleazy waterfront bar. We’re also treated to deadpan musical numbers – “Back in the Saddle” and “Git Along Little Doggies” are choreographic highlights – as well as teeth-rattling supersonic planes zooming overhead as periodic reminders of the real-life context.

McDormand and Tierney stand out as the best known thesps, the former cowering beneath a headscarf as a frightened but feisty Dutch housewife, the latter sexily louche as a French prostitute complete with world-weary beret. But both toss vanity aside to mesh seamlessly with the Group’s regulars, climbing up and down a impossible 45 degree rake to simulate the ship’s pitch and roll.

Straining for meaning is a mistake when attending a spectacle like this, but if you kick back and let it wash over you, a strangely coherent sense of narrative emerges. So does a grimly cynical point of view about the American service culture (and by extension, America generally) trapped in destructive speech and behavior patterns likely to lead to – oh, who knows; Iraq maybe?

In any event, the Wooster Group professionally goes about its “North Atlantic” business with the ebullient conviction of true believers – and that in itself is rather quintessentially American of them.

North Atlantic

REDCAT, Los Angeles; 240 seats; $54 top

  • Production: A CalArts presentation of The Wooster Group production of a play in one act with text by James Strahs. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte.
  • Crew: Sets, Jim Clayburgh; lighting, Jennifer Tipton. sound, Bruce Odland, Matt Schloss, Omar Zubair; video, Andrew Schneider; original music and arrangements, Eddy Dixon; stage manager, Teresa Hartmann. Opened, reviewed Jan. 30, 2008. Runs through Feb. 21. Running time: 1 HR, 30 MINS.
  • Cast: With: Steve Cuiffo, Ari Fliakos, Koosil-ja Hwang, Paul Lazar, Frances McDormand, Zachary Oberzan, Jenny Seastone Stern, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, Kate Valk.
  • Music By: