"THE FISHERMAN and His Wife" is one of the Grimm Brothers' grand old fairy tales, a timeless story that children and adults often know by heart.

But you've never seen it presented the way the D.C. Artists-in-Collaboration do it at the tiny Downstage Theater in George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.

To begin, the fisherman is a woman and his wife is a man. Somehow, despite the fact that the actress playing the fisherman has her hair plaited into a long braid and the burly actor playing his wife has a hairy chest and a mustache, they carry it off very well. (The cast members claim that children have no problem with this role-reversal, and they're probably right: Two 11-year-old sixth-grade girls thought the pair did a smashing job.)

The fisherman's discontented wife, Steven LeBlanc, also has the role of the enchanted Flounder who grants the fisherman his wishes if he will throw the fish back into the sea. But each wish granted leads to another sought, and soon the upwardly mobile peasant has gone from cottage to castle, from king to emperor and then pope, until the Flounder at last decides that the woman needs a comeuppance and sends her back to her original state.

Aside from the narrator, the Flounder has the only other speaking part. Yes, the fish speaks; the people don't. They perform in mime, accompanied by wonderful background music from assorted instruments -- a synthesizer, harp, bells, clarinet, melodica, bird calls, various drums and more.

But that's not all that's different about this show. The major prop -- the director calls it "the fifth actor" -- is a parachute, which becomes the roiling sea as the actors shake it under varicolored lighting, or royal robes, fishing nets, a canopy or a cottage or virtually anything at all. As the parachute flaps and billows, it may tickle theatergoers in the front row. The children, of course, love it. Sitting so close to the actors, they are almost part of the show.

If you come to this barebones production with a touch of ennui, you'll emerge refreshed as the actors and their simple props free your imagination. A parachute never seemed so versatile; the other props -- two ladders and a tall tube -- seem incredibly humble but adequate. You could almost do it at home, couldn't you? giggled the girls.

Key to the production is director Julie Portman's dramatic narration. Portman, an Obie- winning director who spent two years in Western India on a Fulbright Grant studying Asian theater, believes that because most people already know the timeless Grimm fairy tale, they will focus on the presentation.

"Grimm speaks to all ages . . . there's a place you can go in the story and find something for you," she said. "It turns audiences on, it turns artists of quality on."

"The Fisherman and His Wife" is about 45 minutes long, preceded at this run by a short introduction to Grimm fairy tales. Called "The Golden Key," that offering is directed by Beth Burkhardt, who plays the fisherman.

The troupe offered "The Fisherman" for six performances last June, drawing full houses at the Downstage, and performed at the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park over the Labor Day weekend.

Portman notes that this year and next mark the 200th anniversaries of the births of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob in 1785 and Wilhelm in 1786. She says the troupe plans to add more Grimm stories -- the German brothers collected more than 200 -- to its repertoire during the next year.

Portman doesn't say what role the parachute may have in the D.C. Artists' future productions. But one thing is certain: After seeing this production, your child will want one.

THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE & THE GOLDEN KEY -- Friday, Saturday and October 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30; also Saturday and October 26 at 5:30; and Sunday and October 27 at 1:30 and 3:30. Tickets: $5. Recommended age: four and up.

The Downstage Theater, Studio A, can be reached from the Lisner Auditorium side entrance on H Street. Follow the stairwell down. Call 362-3679 for reservations. And be on time. The theater, one square room without a raised stage, seats about 50. Once the doors are closed, more patrons cannot be seated.


D.C. Artists-in-Collaboration are already scheduled to perform their show at public schools in the District. Call 362-3679 to find out where they are playing or to arrange for bookings.

If your child is fascinated by the use of the parachute, you might consider asking your school to schedule one of the troupe's workshops, "Creating Stories With Parachutes." Other workships are "Storytelling" and "Transforming Folktales Into Theater." Workshops can be booked separately or with a performance.

Patricia Brennan last wrote for Weekend on the International Children's Festival.