There are child actors and there are real actors who happen to be children. At Fun House Theatre in Plano, a company we've praised before, 18 serious actors, ages 10 to 17, are doing an impressive production of Hamlet right now. The lead is played by Shepton High School ninth-grader Chris Rodenbaugh.
This is no simplified Hamlet, no cutesy mini-version. It's full out, five acts, with a few cuts here and there. Director Jeff Swearingen, who co-founded Fun House with artistic director Bren Rapp just over a year ago, has these kids deep down in the Shakespeare.
They get the moods right, the nuances of the language, even when they rush the words a bit breathlessly. (You try saying "The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword" through a mouth full of orthodontia.) Their performances have an elegance and focus you don't usually get from actors this age. Or any age really.
What changes when no one in Hamlet is old enough to shave? It's interesting. This Hamlet's youth makes his anger at his mother and his uncle/step-father more poignant than in some productions with grown-up actors. He's a sad kid here, betrayed by his mother, Gertude (clear-voiced Madeleine Norton), who has married her brother-in-law within weeks of burying Hamlet's father. When Rodenbaugh's Hamlet encounters the ghost of his dead father (played beautifully by David Allen Norton), he's a lonely son longing to spend more time with his dad.
And Ophelia, played here by the lovely Taylor Donnelson, 14, now seems exactly the right age to be confused by Hamlet's sexual jokes and driven mad by grief when he breaks up with her. Hamlet has also accidentally killed her father, Polonius (Josh LeBlanc), so why shouldn't she die, too?
So often, Claudius, the usurping uncle, is portrayed as a smarmy weakling. In this production, 14-year-old Doak Campbell Rapp (who also played Don Quixote in this company's excellent Man of La Mancha last year) has a stunning moment with the character's difficult soliloquy, a 300-word speech about his remorse for murdering his brother that begins "O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon't...." His clarity with the text is better than we've heard in many productions.
All of the supporting players are just fine: Cal Simpson as Laertes, Kennedy Waterman and Jaxon Beeson as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Mollie-Claire Matthews as Horatio, 10-year-old Alexander Duva as Osric. They act with intensity and efficiency of movement, never "sawing the air" with gestures, as Hamlet warns the players not to do within the play.
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The final sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes? Shakespeare Dallas could learn a few things here.
Costumed simply in shades of creams, reds and black, with sleek modular scenery by professional designer Joseph Cummings (working on a $300 budget), this Hamlet surges with energy. They manage all five acts in just under two and a half hours.
Watching handsome young Rodenbaugh tear up as he spoke the words of "To be or not to be," we couldn't help but think about his future. This actor is 15 and has committed the toughest role in English-language theater to memory. No matter what happens to him in high school -- the missed fly ball, the turndown for a prom date, the low grade on an algebra exam -- he can always fall back on "I've already done Hamlet." That means something.
Hamlet continues through Sunday, March 3, at Fun House Theatre at Plano Children's Theatre, 1301 Dolphin Dr. (Southwest corner of Custer and 15th Street), Plano, TX 75075. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, $4 students, $8 adults, at the door or at www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com.