In the history of greater and lesser shark movies (ranging from "Jaws" and its sequels to "The Deep Blue Sea" and the more recent "The Meg") no film has dared to take on a crucial perspective — that of the shark itself. Leave that to the stage.
Dan Caffrey’s ensemble play "Matawan," set in 1916 during a series of real-life shark attacks in New Jersey, showcases this somewhat familiar narrative from a series of viewpoints, including the shark's. Indeed, in the new production of "Matawan" from the University of Texas’ Department of Theatre and Dance, it is the shark’s story that is most evocative and engaging.
"Matawan" flashes back and forth between showing the lives of the shark’s victims and the underwater perspective of the shark, in a series of relatively short scenes that focus equally on evoking the tenor and politics of 1916 as they do on character development. Very early on, it becomes clear that the shark serves as a metaphor for the fear that was engulfing Americans at the time, fear of everything from malaria to German U-Boats and even changing social mores.
Unfortunately, as a result of this structure, there is ultimately very little emotional connection to most of the humans. We only get the bare bones of their histories and personalities, and wonder more about how their lives will intersect with the shark attack than whether they will achieve their goals. The notable exception to this is the precocious portrayal of 11-year-old epileptic boy Lester Stilwell by Cat Palacios, a performance that contains a great deal of subtlety beneath an outwardly bombastic tenor.
With such sketchy character work on Caffrey’s part, it is very tempting to root for the shark in "Matawan." Indeed, this may be the playwright’s intention. The shark (given the name “()” in the program) has a series of slightly abstract, poetic monologues that take us into her heart, and we understand her desires more than any of the human characters’.
Director Alice Stanley’s production choices push this emotional focus on the shark even further. With a fully in-the-round set by Zoe Anderson that resembles a pier abutting a cool body of water, the human’s playing spaces are all along the sides and in the corners of the theater, while the shark’s aquatic scenes are center stage. Furthermore, designer Qi Jiajing’s somewhat sparse lighting becomes lush and suggestive for the underwater moments, accompanied by gorgeously symbolic costuming designed by Stephanie Fisher and a rich, atmospheric combination of score and sound design by Sam Lipman.
One also cannot overlook Guinevere Govea’s dynamic performance as the shark, a combination of vocal musicality and physical control that brings emotional depth to the sparsely poetic monologues. Aided by a large movement ensemble, with choreography from Isaac Iskra, Govea brings the shark to life in a way that is equally frightening and beautiful.
In the sense of being a well-made play that has a satisfying story about humanity, "Matawan" does not quite hit the mark. As an exploration of the ways in which we can see deeper truths about mankind through the evocative story of an aquatic killer, though, this production truly has bite.
When: Various times through Oct. 21
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd St.