Thursday, December 15, 2016

Fun Times at "Fun Home"

She rang of keys...

Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
How do you make something sad to be something funny? Can you ever truly understand the past?

That is the central question at the heart of Fun Home, currently visiting Minneapolis at the Orpheum Theater. Fun Home is the 2015 Tony Award-winning Best Musical, based on the memoir and graphic novel by Alison Bechdel (of Bechdel test fame) that explores her memories of her father, sexual awakening and her father's subsequent suicide. It is a gorgeous, complex, highly nuanced story that covers the complications of "coming out," the incredible transition in public feelings about homosexual relationships, and a bittersweet rendering of the pain of searching for answers after untimely death.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Bechdel is a super-smart writer and I loved this book, but I was curious how the graphic novel would play out on-stage. A key element of Fun Home is the multiple versions of Bechdel interacting simultaneously - the adult as she draws/remembers her younger selves, the running commentary in her head as she bounces back and forth between multiple ages. In the production, this plays out beautifully as "Older Alison" stands in contemplative observation of her younger selves as they all interact, harmonizing and remembering different wisps of moments. It provides a real sense of conflict and growth that is true to life and provides an extremely moving theatrical experience.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Part of this is due to the total synchronicity between each Alison. Alessandra Baldacchino is magnificent as small Alison (think age 10 or so), with a ton of spunk and an evident curiosity for life. Kate Shindle is strong as adult Alison; my only wish was to hear more of Shindle, as she has a gorgeous voice and is somewhat silent compared to the other versions of the character. The standout in this crew was Abbby Corrigan as medium Alison, the Alison who comes out to her parents, goes to college, and weathers Alison's sexual awakening. Corrigan has a clarion-clear voice and gives a superbly nuanced performance, transitioning from the naivete of inexperienced, sheltered youth to the passion and fire that can only come from an early-20s college student who feels they've understood the world (when they haven't). She anchors this crew; her beautiful work weaves the tapestry of Fun Home together.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
The rest of the cast is good, too. Robert Petkoff is striking as Alison's father Bruce. He perfectly demonstrates the stiff, almost abusive relationship Bruce had with his children, as well as the pain that came from being a closeted gay man in the mid-20th century. Bruce's story is a powerful one in a post-Obergefell vs. Hodges world, and it's incredibly important that we never forget how far we have come in tolerance and why that tolerance matters so much. Susan Moniz gives a similarly nuanced performance as Alison's mother Helen, another character who faces unimaginable obstacles. Helen is no martyr, but it is unthinkable to imagine the risk and isolation she must have felt as a cuckolded wife. Moniz is a wonderful partner with Petkoff, and they bring the complex, deep partnership and despair felt by Alison's parents off of the page and into full-fledged life. Karen Eilbacher is wonderful as Alison's friend (and later partner) Joan. Eilbacher is a refined, thoughtful foil to the impassioned transition of Corrigan as middle Alison, and it's easy to see how Joan would be such a key figure both in Alison's sexual awakening and her recovery after her father's suicide.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
The set of Fun Home is mainly placed in the Bechdel's restored Victorian family home in Pennsylvania, a place Bechdel herself describes as a sort of mausoleum of emotions. It's evocatively represented for the first half of the play (as well as the family-owned funeral home, or "fun home") in a few strategically chosen furniture pieces but blossoms into a gorgeous, fully drawn piece later in the show replete with paintings, bureaus, a piano, crystal and more. This alternates with an austere NYC apartment and Alison's simple dorm room to create a contrast between cold and severe and lush yet distant environments, perfectly mirroring the emotions of the characters' strained relationships and senses of self. It also bears noting that although this is a richly drawn, complex story, it clocks in at a little over 90 minutes with no intermission, further proving my theory that a show does not need to be long to be excellent.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Fun Home should be required viewing, and here's why: a lot of people don't seem to understand the dangers of repressive societal norms. Alison's strength in telling Bruce's story, in poignantly memorializing his struggle and using it to search for truths in her own identity, is incredible and vital to understanding the difficulties of life as a gay person in America. Bechdel is strictly honest in her retelling; neither of her parents are angels; Alison herself is extremely naive, although well-intentioned; the sins of the father are not the sins of the child, although her mother can't seem to see the difference; her biggest mistake is taking for granted the fact that her family will always be there (they won't). It's important too to note that although the story here is rather dark, it comes with many rays of sunshine. It really is fun, and it's funny; you'll be surprised how often you laugh with Bechdel at her crazy past.
Photo courtesy of Colin Michael Simmons.
Fun Home is deeply complicated, but that is it's beauty: it's only through the confusion and mess that makes up real life that we can find truth and happiness. It is impossible to watch Fun Home without growing up a little and without confronting some uncomfortable truths - not only about the characters, but about yourself. How do you react to this story? Why? What can we learn from each other? Why does that matter? In the Age of Trump, these questions will be more important than ever. Fun Home is a glorious exploration of the uncomfortable fact of human existence and the beauty of saudade*, and of all the ways that humans, as imperfect and broken as we are, are connected in the end. See it; you won't regret it. Fun Home runs at the Orpheum Theater through December 18; find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link.

*Saudade is one of my favorite non-English terms - see the Wikipedia definition here and the video of Cesaria Evora representing saudade in vocal form below.