The character desciptions are clear, with some room for casting choices.
PETER: A man in his early 40s, neither fat nor gaunt, neither handsome nor homely.
JERRY: A man in his late 30s, not poorly dressed, but carelessly.
On a Wednesday night in August, two bony teenagers, who could barely pass for 15, rehearse the roles of Peter and Jerry from Edward Albee’s two-man play The Zoo Story. Fun House Theatre and Film is at it again.
Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp, the minds behind Fun House, take youth theater very seriously. Previous shows have included Hamlet and adaptations of Glengarry Glen Ross and The Little Prince. As the actors continue to prove that they are up for new challenges, Rapp and Swearingen decided to launch the Actor’s Exploration Series.
“We wanted to take specific kids and challenge them to explore something new stylistically,” Rapp says. “We knew they could do it.”
A one-act play about isolation and human connection, The Zoo Story takes entirely place on a bench in Central Park. Jerry strikes up a conversation with Peter about his trip to the zoo and the subjects meander culminating in a violent departure. It’s an absurdist piece, rich with criticism about politics and America – not typical junior high school fare.
Chris Rodenbaugh and Doak Rapp (Bren’s son) picked up the script for the first time this summer without any knowledge of Albee’s work. They have been relying on Swearingen and Rapp as guides through any tricky moments in the script. Another obstacle with this particular play was the age disparity between the actors and the characters.
“Obviously I can’t really relate to a lot of the adult issues in this play,” Rodenbaugh says. “So I’m trying to connect with it through things I’ve observed, like with my parents.”
The boys are sharing the stage again after Hamlet, in which Doak played the evil king Claudius to Chris’ troubled, young prince of Denmark. Like Shakespeare, the young actors are discovering that Albee has a language of his own.
“You have to read through it a couple times to really understand what’s happening in each scene,” Doak says. “And a two-man show was a challenge I wanted to try, it’s just me, Chris and a bench.”
The more they talk about the play and the roles their characters play, it’s clear how deeply they’ve begun to grasp the themes and subtext in the play. Doak and Chris point to the strong themes of human isolation present in the script.
“Given that it was written in 1959 about isolation, now with smart phones there’s even more isolation so it’s even more relevant,” Doak Rapp says. “Here Peter’s isolated himself from his family on the bench and I, I mean my character Jerry, wishes he could un-isolate himself. He says ‘I’d kill for a family.’”
Swearingen and Rapp are proud to use Fun House as training grounds for tough texts, introducing young actors to everything from Chekhov plays to different acting methods. They have an apparent respect for the intellectual capacity of their students and they are producing well-versed high school students.
“I know doing this play will want to make me read more Albee,” Rodenbaugh says. “After I did Hamlet I went out and bought six different Shakespeare plays and just read them. And I’ll never forget any of the lines from that play or this one.”