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Fight or Flight Theater puts an aerial twist on Jaws
"You're gonna need a bigger boat" – that memorable line from Jaws – gets a fresh twist this summer under the captainship of off-Off-Broadway's Fight or Flight Theater Company. For starters, the phrase is spoken a few feet off the ground.
That's because Fight or Flight is a troupe of trapeze-loving actors who are gleefully mounting a comic, movement-friendly stage version of Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster about a man-eating shark.
In This Is Not J.A.W.S., playing Monday nights in August at Dixon Place, the boat in question is smaller than ever – just a platform about the size of a dining room table – and it swings from cables attached to the theatre's ceiling.
That provides precarious footing for the trio of actors playing police chief Brody, veteran fisherman Quint, and marine biologist Matt Hooper. It also distills Fight or Flight's aesthetic approach.
"The trapezes and other aerial apparatus function like highly adaptable set pieces and infinitely expressive props," says founding co-artistic director John Behlmann, who created the hour-long show's aerial choreography and co-wrote the seriocomic script with Dan Loeser.
Since co-founding the company in 2008, he's collaborated on aerial versions of Henry V, Richard II, Top Gun, an original comedy called Trapeze Hero!, and more.
"By climbing to a new height or attaching equipment a certain way, we are instantly transported to a church or a boat or outer space," he adds.
Behlmann practices what he creates. On his Monday nights off from Roundabout Theatre Company's Significant Other, he plays Brody, with Loeser as Hooper and Richard Thieriot as Quint, each of them doing deadpan impersonations of the stars who created the roles (Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, respectively).
When Behlmann saw Jaws again in 2012, he immediately realized that the shark-hunting boat, called the Orca, had the potential to "fly" on stage, on a suspended platform about five feet above the floor. (Fight or Flight engages in low-flying trapeze/aerial work rather than the sort you know from big-top circuses.)
"The most iconic parts of the film are from the back half of the story, once the three guys set out on the Orca to chase the shark," says Behlmann. "That's the stuff everyone really loves and remembers, and that's what my mind seized on – the Orca as a floating platform. I made a bunch of drawings of airborne platforms and had no idea how they would come to be. But I knew they would work."
The idea brewed in his imagination, and it lingered during the company's development of an aerial adaptation of Moby-Dick. During a workshop for that show, in fact, the troupe decided that Melville's tale was too massive for their current resources.But the smaller, seven-actor lark about the great white shark seemed viable – and a way to test ideas for a future Moby-Dick production.
Like Moby-Dick, Jaws is rife with physical ideas of floating, swimming, bobbing, height, leaning, and tugging. Behlmann "watched and re-watched" the movie, wrote down a list of potential aerial moments, and discussed the shape of the show with Loeser and director Wes Grantom.
In its final form, This Is Not J.A.W.S. can be antic and absurd. The titular acronym stands for "Just Another White Shark," for instance, and the show opens with teens singing 1970s pop hits around a bonfire. However, the creators are still interested in the more frightening aspects of the film.
"We didn't really start with the idea of 'spoof' as a launching point," says Behlmann. "It's a terrifying movie, and to remove the eeriness or the shock would be a disservice to the spirit of the story. Without that, there's nothing to balance the lightness of the comedy."
To that end, one of those bonfire kids is jerked around on a trapeze, suggesting the violent force of her encounter with an eating machine as she swims in the surf. Later, a trio of swimmers – one with an inflatable ring around him – dangles in the air, seemingly suspended and rolling in the tide, to dreamy original music by Phil Pickens. Moments like these lend an expressionistic, dance-like quality to the evening.
"That kind of thing is exactly what Fight or Flight goes for in our work," Behlmann says. "Surprising moments of beauty and flashes of powerful imagery against a sea of entertainment."
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photos by JD Hall. Top photo: John Behlmann, Dan Loeser, Richard Thieriot hang on for dear life.