There's a functional way to drag a corpse off a stage and there's a funny way. The young actors in Fun House Theatre and Film's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead do it the funny way. Every time.
Fun House, for theatergoers who haven't yet discovered its extraordinary shows, is Jeff Swearingen and Bren Rapp's all-youth company in Plano. In a bare-bones space at the back of a strip center off Custer Road, they put on plays not usually associated with kid performers. Like Edward Albee's Zoo Story. Or David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, adapted by Swearingen into a G-rated homage called Daffodil Girls, about a troop of scouts selling cookies with the same cutthroat tactics Mamet's guys used to peddle real estate.
Swearingen is teaching children and teens the real stuff of live theater. They do high-quality acting here, working on the craft via script analysis and lessons in physical and vocal technique. Impressive.
The cast of the recent full-length Hamlet at Fun House returns in their same roles for this latest gem, the 1966 Tom Stoppard farce about two characters who appear only briefly in the Shakespeare tragedy. Rosencrantz, the dim one, and Guildenstern, the smarter one, are ordered to Elsinore castle to hang out with the brooding Prince of Denmark and snitch back to his mother, Gertrude, and Claudius, his stepfather/uncle. The two are friendly spies who end up dead for reasons the Bard doesn't make entirely clear.
Stoppard's play moves them front and center, stranding them, Godot-like, in a bare room in the castle, flipping coins (which come up heads 100 times) while all the action of Hamlet unfolds around them. Mixing snatches of the Shakespeare into the dialogue, Stoppard creates an absurd, antic comedy full of dizzying wordplay. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may have no idea where they are or what they're supposed to be doing, but they do seem to realize, as they toss lines back and forth like hot potatoes, that they won't get out of there alive.
Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?
Guildenstern: Words. Words. They're all we have to go on.
Directed by René Moreno, the top professional stage director hereabouts, which tells you even more about Fun House's growing reputation, the three (edited) acts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fly by in under two hours. In the leading roles, Jaxon Beeson and Kennedy Waterman, both 13 — 13! — inhabit the title characters as fully as any grown-up actors would. They take their time, hit the punch lines, work the pauses. They spew Stoppard's nonlinear speeches and pingpongy back-and-forths with impressive facility. Waterman is a marvel to watch in this play, as she was in Daffodil Girls. Such focus. If Swearingen could somehow stage an all-kid version of August: Osage County, she'd be terrific in any of the parts, including the 80-year-old raving drug addict.
For all its dark, metaphysical musings on death, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern works fine with this cast because of its spurts of adolescent silliness. The best scene in the Fun House production features a cameo by Swearingen as The Player, leading a ragtag band of hammy actors into Elsinore for a command performance of "The Murder of Gonzago." "We're actors! We're the opposite of people!" The Player declares as his troupe gambols about like puppies. Stoppard makes copious fun of both actors and audience. Theater patrons, says Rosencrantz (Beeson), suffer from "the irrational belief that someone interesting will come on in a minute."
How right he is. Thankfully, everyone in this show qualifies as interesting. They have no lines, but the nine "tragedians" — Lizzy Greene, Tex Patrello, Andy Stratton, Kennedy O'Kelly, Marisa Mendoza, Jeremy LeBlanc, David Allen Norton, Laney Neumann and Karina Cunningham — are splendid clowns. Especially Greene, a teensy 10-year-old with big eyes and crackerjack comic timing. As "Alfred," she's the one dragging the corpses, three times her size, by their heels into the wings. She also has a funny fight with Swearingen's Player, done in slo-mo with some crouching tiger flying, thanks to an offstage pair of strong hands. (Green's bio in the program says she's soon headed for Hollywood and a role on a Nickelodeon series. Good for her, though let's hope Juilliard or the Yale School of Drama are also in her future.)
Stoppard works some pirates into the action and allows Hamlet (Chris Rodenbaugh) to deliver his famous soliloquy silently upstage with his back turned. When he exits, he walks straight into a wall on designer Clare Floyd DeVries Escher-inspired set, which features upside down staircases, arches and sliver-thin doorways. King Claudius (Doak Campbell Rapp), Gertrude (Madeleine Norton), Ophelia (Taylor Donnelson) and Polonius (Josh LeBlanc) all appear, too, striking exaggerated poses as the murders and intrigues of Hamlet play out behind befuddled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The pace is frenetic, but the Fun House actors never falter. On opening night, the house was packed with parents and children rocking the house with laughter. Is there any other theater you know of where little kids are seeing a Stoppard play and getting the jokes?
Coming up in June, Swearingen and company are doing another of his original spoofs: Game of Thrones Junior. Oh, we are so there.