A Stilted, Shapeless Thing: FunHouse Attempts Neil LaBute

Doak Campbell Rapp, Madeleine Norton, Taylor Donnelson, Chris Rodenbaugh

Doak Campbell Rapp, Madeleine Norton, Taylor Donnelson, Chris Rodenbaugh

I respect the acting ensemble at FunHouse Theatre in Plano. I admire the fearless veracity with which they take on challenging projects and own them. They are capable of producing solid works of genuine performance art that entertain as well as illuminate. In their current production of Neil LaBute’s “The Shape of Things”, they give the weakest performance I have ever witnessed from this company, with one exception.

It is the director’s job to guide actors across a play’s arc, to help them find  characters’ honest motivations and define the resonances within human contact that make up a work’s soul and rhythm.  I would have appreciated this performance of “The Shape of Things” more had they presented it as a classic staged reading, with scripts on music stands in a line. The emotional connection, sensuality and depth of betrayal revealed in and by the work could spring to life in the audience’s imagination. As a member of that audience, I would not find myself distracted (and embarrassed) by posing, clowning and racing overlapped dialogue with flat, forced intonation, baffled by the absolute lack of chemistry between the characters presented as close friends or lovers or dismayed at the complete lack of sensuality evoked by scenes of intimacy and the utter lack of palpable character arcs. I don’t know anything about Brad Baker as a director. But I do know the work of this acting ensemble well: Doak Rapp, Madeleine Norton, Chris Rodenbaugh, Taylor Donnelson, Marisa Mendoza, Laney Neumann, and Josh LeBlanc. I know the depth and breadth of their capabilities. It was tough to sit through this, watching them rattle off lines like sped-up automatons without ever listening to each other or connecting, or pausing for breath, for thought, as people in conversation naturally do, or reacting honestly to the play’s final revelation of devastating, amoral betrayal.

Adam meets Evelyn: Doak Campbell Rapp, Madeleine Norton

Adam meets Evelyn: Doak Campbell Rapp, Madeleine Norton

The one exception: Chris Rodenbaugh. As he so clearly demonstrated as the title character in “Hamlet”, he has an innate sense for following/building character arc, a gift for matching his character’s actions to words and the ability to reveal subtext and irony without telegraphing (something some adult regional “pros” have not mastered). I believed him as the obnoxious, overbearing Phillip in “The Shape of Things”. It was a relief to witness his integrated, justifiable gut reactions as the play unfolded. I wish I could speak as well of the other performances.

FunHouse Theatre always pushes the performance envelope and offers real challenges to its youth ensemble. Productions often excel. Some might question the appropriateness of tasking the youth ensemble with Neil LaBute’s play exploring manipulation and betrayal from a very adult perspective. I hope it’s been a worthwhile learning experience. There is one more performance Sunday 3/23.

 www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com

 My review of Dallas Theater Center’s production of this play from 2010:

https://criticalrant.com/2010/03/10/shaping-up-nicely-labute-dallas-theater-center/

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