Plano — So, what do you do when you are an award-winning teenager who’s already played Hamlet and acted in plays by Mamet, Albee, Stoppard, and LaBute at a theater (Fun House Theatre & Film) known for taking serious works seriously and producing amazing youth talent? Well if you’re polymath Chris Rodenbaugh, you write and star in a full-length play about Irish Republican Army violence in 1970s Belfast just because that sort of thing is interesting to you.
Rodenbaugh’s The Wraith follows a group of IRA operatives in their attempt to kidnap and hold hostage a high-ranking official in protest of British military occupation, all a part of “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. However, this really is just a jumping off point for Rodenbaugh’s erudite musings on religion, politics, class warfare, and philosophy (just to name a few).
Jeff Swearingen (hot off a blistering run as Mercutio at Shakespeare Dallas) directs the play with an eye and ear for clarity; however Rodenbaugh’s promising play ultimately proves too unwieldy for effective control.
Fun House regulars (Rodenbaugh also cast the play) make up the ensemble with Nadia Kennedy (the only female) as the newcomer. They all exert a decent effort given what they have to work with: cumbersome accents, language that vacillates between overly technical to obscure street jargon, to intricate fight scenes (Mick McCormick’s superb fight choreography seems to be lost in execution).
Rodenbaugh is the most successful of the bunch as Arran, a Scottish “serial killer” working for the Belfast Brigade. He has the best lines, and maintains his excellent dialect the longest. Doak Campbell Rapp’s performance as Colm, a young and daft dope fiend is courageously vulnerable and nuanced, and David Allen Norton as the defiant Captive (in the performance reviewed) gives a much-needed jolt to the second half.
The other actors do not fare as well. Too much heavy lifting with the material, the physicality, and the accents make them nearly incomprehensible as they swing between mush-mouth mumbling and bellowing.
The play itself has scads of potential; however, less is more should be Rodenbaugh’s watchwords as he continues to develop it. Streamlining, judicious editing (taking about a third off would be perfect), and tightening the action would benefit The Wraith greatly. The play comes off as a work that desperately wants to be recognized as smart and well-read. It’s too full of “misunderstood” teen themes of angst, “God is dead” Nietzsche, obsession with swearing and violence, freedom from authority, sex, casual misogyny, and gun-pointing braggadocio. Not to say that those things can’t work: look at the films of Scorsese or Tarantino, or especially Martin McDonagh’s dark and violent plays; it’s just that the balance between showing and telling needs more work.
These assessments may come off as too harsh, but this is only because the Fun House bar has been set so high. Rodenbaugh should be proud of this accomplishment, but also chastened to reach even higher and polish this stone to be as bright as he is. Not bad at all for a 17-year-old, but he can do better, and he will.
“Come all ye young rebels.”
Editor's Note: In the interest of disclosure, Fun House producer Bren Rapp is also the Director of Sales and Marketing for TheaterJones