“Let your movie prove worthy of this special place”
In the summer of 1974, Universal Studios invaded Martha’s Vineyard to begin production on a frustrating, messy ordeal of a movie. One actor was injured by the crew, while another had to be babysat so he wouldn’t drink themselves into a stupor. The crew and locals clashed as the studio overflowed the island during tourist season, constricting their main channel of revenue. This film became Jaws, considered one of the best films of all time, despite its catastrophic production process. THE JAWS PROJECT, a devised performance piece by Robert DaPonte, Mary Tuomanen, and Sam Henderson, weaves a fictional love story into the framework of the making of Jaws’.
THE JAWS PROJECT is a super low-budget, immersive piece of theater. With virtually no set, the ensemble initially builds the world of the play by putting the audience in the movie extras’ place. You aren’t allowed to trickle into the theater – you are herded inside as the actors yell instructions at you, tell you where Richard Dreyfuss will be sitting, and so forth. Then, the story begins: A production assistant, Brian (Robert DaPonte), becomes smitten with the bartender at the only bar in Martha’s Vineyard. The bartender, Marjorie (Mary Tuomanen), while hostile towards the Hollywood lifestyle and culture, falls for Brian after he lies about being assistant director (while still being very truthful about the fact that he lives with his mother). However, as the Fourth of July weekend approaches, the Mayor, a “Scary Tow Guy”, and public access TV host Barbara (all played by Sam Henderson) hound Brian to use his power as assistant director to loosen Universal’s grip on the town.
The action is disorienting, as time clips by at warp speed – sometimes cued by the sound of a bell, sometime with almost no indication of change at all. Being a play about a movie, it’s only logical that the ensemble was inspired by the pacing and scene structure of film when crafting their piece. But the ensemble’s naturalistic performances and fast-paced dialogue create a very funny play, and the extremely minimal production elements and do-it-yourself approach to theatre makes the audience an intrinsic part of the show. In a town meeting scene, which sneakily becomes a deft parody of the one in Jaws, Barbara takes charge. She’s definitely Henderson’s funniest character with her New England accent, love of sun hats, and flowing, grandiose gestures. Barbara gives various audience members “grievances” with Universal Studios on slips of paper to read aloud. While forced audience participation can sometimes backfire, this scene turned out to be one of the most magical within THE JAWS PROJECT – at least the one this critic saw. Each audience member chosen read their grievance aloud with no embarrassment, hesitation, or giggles, even putting on New England accents as they recited their lines. And Susan was very upset that they “rubbed her fence” – whatever that means.
The subject matter of THE JAWS PROJECT is an odd choice for theatre, but it’s filled with laughs, drama, and musings on the importance of family. It also inspects the divide between process and product when making art through the eyes of Steven Spielberg himself. Henderson’s take on Spielberg is that of a man full of self-importance and bravado, who also lacking hope for his project and anticipating utter failure. “The shark is not working,” several characters say throughout, in reference to the many technical issues with the film’s prop sharks. “I’m gonna get fired today,” Spielberg also states throughout. It’s a fascinating examination of the mind of an artist, who lacks confidence in work that will later be viewed as a masterpiece. Mixed in with the romantic subplot, THE JAWS PROJECT recalls Sunday in the Park with George – but with robot sharks instead of dogs and monkeys.
[Skinner Studio, Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St.] June 26th – July 4th; http://www.playsandplayers.org/jawsproject/