Plano — Sam Shepard and David Mamet are gritty and tough-talking titans of contemporary American theater. Their plays, deceptively simple, are testosterone tone poems about business, art, the business of art, manhood, brotherhood, and the destruction and deconstruction of the American dream. Seasoned actors and directors who want a challenge are drawn to Messrs. Shepard and Mamet’s works, and successful productions (rare) usually please both critics and audiences alike (doubly rare).
However, such meaty fare is not usually something associated with youth theaters. Which makes Fun House Theatre and Film’s repertory run of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow and Shepard’s True West as a part of their Actor’s Exploration Series even more impressive.
Fun House does things differently. True they use mostly teenagers and even younger actors; however, these fledgling thespians, often directed by the brilliant and passionate Jeff Swearingen and produced by the tireless Bren Rapp are not afraid of taking on the biggies such as Shakespeare, Stoppard and Albee. Swearingen’s Daffodil Girls was inspired by Mamet, and a previous Actor’s Exploration Series featured Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. [Disclosure: Rapp is also Director of Sales and Marketing for TheaterJones.]
In Fun House’s first rep run, Swearingen directs both of the plays (Taylor Donnelson is the only actor doing double duty) as companion pieces that speak to each other and explore the surface themes of screen adaptation and the business of filmmaking, with masculine tension as the subtext.
I will begin with Speed-the-Plow, because I saw it first (any order is fine, of course). Bobby Gould (Doak Campbell Rapp) has just been promoted to the head of production at a major studio and his friend and colleague, Charlie Fox (Chris Rodenbaugh) brings him an opportunity to make a blockbuster movie with a bankable star. The promise of much money and fame seem a done deal until a temp secretary, Karen (Donnelson) and a new literary script confuses things.
Rapp (16), Rodenbaugh (17), and Donnelson (17) are some of Fun House’s strongest actors and they are all well-suited for this heady material. Mamet is fond of the quick role reversal between his male characters, and of course, loves to wallow in all of that tough guy miasma. Donnelson’s Karen holds her own in the boys’ club and adds a nice balance to the rat-a-tat between Rodenbaugh (a fiery presence here) and a nuanced and thoughtful Rapp.
True West is about many things, but the heart of the play deals with brothers. Austin (Jeremy LeBlanc) is an Ivy League-educated screenwriter who is house sitting for his mom, and working on a project with producer, Saul (an understated yet effective Jaxon Beeson). Lee (Josh LeBlanc), the elder is a petty thief blown in from the desert to scotch things up with his little brother. If you did not already notice the same last names, yes, Jeremy and Josh are real-life brothers and their status imbues the show with even more sibling tension. In an interview for TheaterJones they claim to have very similar interests and get along quite well. One certainly could not tell given how they snarl, wrestle, and snipe at each other. Jeremy’sAustin keeps his cool until he doesn’t (with hilarious results), and Josh as Lee is appropriately menacing and opportunistic.
Clare Floyd DeVries designed the sets for both shows and uses spartan yet artistic touches to much effect. Bren Rapp’s costuming (pushed up jacket sleeves, bright colors, and loafers without socks, 1980s Miami Vice style for Speed-the-Plow, and tweedy intellectual meets casual tumbleweed for True West) strike the right notes. Even the pre- and post-show music choices are spot on with 80s new wave and pop for Plow and classic country and western for True.
Kudos to Swearingen for maintaining the feel of each show. He emphasizes Mamet’s frenetic barrage of interrupting and overlapping dialogue, and Shepard’s long and languid pace broken up by weighty pauses.
Watching kids tackle such adult plays is no mere parlor trick. They add a depth and wise-beyond-their-years sophistication that eludes many mature productions of these plays. And that is a pretty freakin’ amazing thing.