The Ruckus premieres a play based on infamous shark attacks that proves to be too cold-blooded.
Not many are aware that the mechanical shark prop at the center of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws had a name. It was called Bruce—after Spielberg’s lawyer. In writing about the attacks that inspired the original Jaws novel, Dan Caffrey doesn’t give his shark a name, but he does go a step further: He gives it a soul. Played by Susan Myburgh, the shark knifes across the stage with unquenchable hunger and ambition. It encounters a German U-boat and discerns a kindred spirit.
But while Matawan, directed by Allison Shoemaker, brings the shark’s inner life into clear focus, all of its human characters remain fuzzy. A fictionalization of the real events, the play is set in 1916 along the Jersey Shore. The shark attacks here embody numerous fears and anxieties rippling through the country: polio, the war in Europe, poverty and changing social mores. We meet an assortment of characters, from an uptight Philadelphia doctor (Dennis Frymire) worried about his unmanly son (Bryan Bosque) to a seedy hotelier (Elise Mayfield), a restless bachelorette (Scottie Caldwell) and a young entrepreneur (Mike Steele) returning home to start again. The character list is expansive, but no one really makes an impression. They’re just chum waiting to happen.
Shoemaker conjures an impressive Foley soundscape, both music and sound effects. Live instrumentation lends an air of old-time hootenanny. The movement design, however, is wan; bodies move listlessly through space, never conjuring any greater imagery. The balletic shark attacks lack danger. Like the famously finicky Bruce, Matawan rarely works when it needs to.
The Ruckus at Athenaeum Theatre. By Dan Caffrey. Directed by Allison Shoemaker. With ensemble cast. 2hrs; one intermission.