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New Play Mixes 'Top Gun' with Shakespeare

By Mary Johnson | November 14, 2011 7:32am

GRAMERCY — Picture Tom Cruise in “Top Gun” — the aviators, the bomber jacket, the cocky recklessness, the undeniable need for speed.

Now give it the Shakespeare treatment.

That’s the mind-bending tenet behind a play called “Jester’s Dead” now showing at the Peoples Improv Theater on East 24th Street in Gramercy.

The show, created by Rhett Henckel and Nat McIntyre, is built around the plot of the iconic 1986 film that spawned a generation of fighter-pilot wannabes.

The characters and the storyline are the same. But the dialogue is an intricate mash-up of fresh-from-the-film lines and classic iambic pentameter from Shakespeare's library of plays.

“I think this is the most fun I’ve had on stage since I was 20 years old,” said McIntyre, 35, who also plays the role of Stinger in the show. “You see the joy that the audience gets out of it.”

The show opened at the Peoples Improv Theater in September and is scheduled to run through Dec. 9. But the idea was conceived about two and a half years ago.

McIntyre and Henckel, part of The Outfit theater company, are both classically trained actors who studied at The Old Globe in San Diego, and they both harbor a sincere artistic appreciation of Shakespeare.

“I think we’re both really interested in bringing Shakespeare to new audiences,” said Henckel, 30, who plays the roles of Goose and Viper in the show. “At some point, ‘Top Gun’ became the focus [of that effort].”

The film, which also starred Val Kilmer and Kelly McGillis, had some obvious Shakespearean undertones, McIntyre, 35, noted.

“The first one for me is the role of Maverick,” he said.

Maverick, played by Tom Cruise, is haunted by the death of his father, just like the Shakespearean character of Hamlet. Also, Maverick is plagued by this fear that he can never live up to his father’s legacy, which feels an awful lot like “Henry IV,” McIntyre explained.

“It’s always funny to me when I sit and talk so seriously about ‘Top Gun,’” he added with a laugh.

After all, their show is meant to be a parody, interspersing exact quotes from the 1980s classic with lines from every one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Each scene ends in a rhyming couplet, and in place of the curse words in the original “Top Gun” script, the writers inserted Shakespearean expletives like “canker blossom,” “bull’s pizzle” and “dried neat’s tongue.”

There’s also singing—a good deal of singing, McIntyre said. The show features live performances of the film’s epic songs like “Highway to the Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away,” played on guitars and recorders.  

“The music in ‘Top Gun’ is so iconic that you have to give a nod to it,” McIntyre said.

The staging of the show is deliberately simple, Henckel said. There are no aerial fight scenes. The actors — themselves all classically trained from various prestigious acting schools — do their fighting with swords, rather than jets, and simulate flight with the movement of their bodies.

There's also some use of shadows, and shadow puppets, Henckel added, giggling.

“The theatrical conventions are all sort of basic. We try not to involve too much technology,” he said.

The purpose is to keep the focus of the show on the seamless mixture of dialogue from the film and from Shakespeare’s plays.

“I think that’s what makes it work, that you have these professional actors treating ‘Top Gun’ with the seriousness of Shakespeare,” McIntyre said.

So far, the audience for “Jester’s Dead” has been a broad mix of “Top Gun” faithfuls, Shakespeare geeks and everyone in between, the creators said.

For McIntyre, his favorite reaction from the show came from a young guy — probably about 17-years-old — who dragged his parents with him to see the show.

“At the end of the play, he literally jumps out of his seat and screams, ‘That was ridiculous!’” McIntyre recalled. “His mind had been blown.”

"Jester's Dead" is playing through Dec. 9 at the Peoples Improv Theater at 123 E. 24th Street, between Park and Lexington.