‘Fun Home’ review: tragicomic

Loving, audacious musical adaptation brings Alison Bechdel's popular graphic novel family drama to Portland Center Stage

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

To create a successful adaptation, you need an abundance of two qualities: audacity and love. Cleverness helps (so does money), but those two are the important ones. They keep each other in check: audacity gets you started, helps you make necessary cuts and alterations, empowers the act of (re)creation; love keeps you honest, helps you recognize the essentials, and reminds you of why you’re devoting yourself to another artist’s labors. Audacity drives the process, love guides it. Think of them as the right hand of blessing and the left hand of darkness.

Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s award-winning 2013 adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s also-award-winning 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, playing through October 22 at The Armory, benefitted from an extra helping of both. The source material is as personal and intimate as it gets: the successful cartoonist’s first graphic novel, a memoir revolving around the tumultuous four months bracketed by her own coming out and her closeted father’s suicide, is an auteurishly dense and complex piece of literature. It’s dark, and funny, and deeply literary in the interdisciplinary way that has become the special province of comic books—sorry, “graphic novels”—ever since Will Eisner turned out his magnificent A Contract with God in 1978 and bequeathed his name to the genre’s highest honor. It would make a pretty good movie; it would make an incredible Netflix series.

The cast of “Fun Home” at The Armory. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Instead, Kron and Tesori turned Bechdel’s book into an Off-Broadway musical. It won a bunch of Tonys, went On-Broadway and then on tour, and eventually Portland Center Stage decided to bring it to Portland. I can hardly think of a better home for the sophisticated, queer-themed family drama. I went and saw it the other night on the recommendation of literally every theater person I know, and it did not disappoint. It’s refreshingly brief at 90 minutes; it hits all of the book’s high points and lovingly expresses its central themes and character arcs in surprising ways; the set and costumes and props and other theater accoutrements all look cool; the singing and acting were great, the live band is awesome, and it’s even got a few really catchy tunes. In fact, you should stop reading now and go buy your tickets before the rest of the run sells out.

Okay, welcome back. In March, when I heard PCS would be staging Fun Home, I had one of those childlike “but that’s sooo faaaaar awaaaaaaaaay!” moments, six months to stretch out before me like the seemingly interminable run-up to Christmas Morning. It was like being ten all over again. See, I’ve read and reread Bechdel’s graphic memoir dozens of times in the decade since its release, having first come across the little black-and-blue-grey graphic novel in the Orlando public library (a couple slots down from Craig Thompson’s Blankets). I was driving 18-wheelers at the time, and there’s no better way to unwind after a long day of driving than to snuggle up in your bunk with a good book. Comics were always my first choice on the road, largely because of their high reread value: I might burn through a whole graphic novel in a day or two and slowly revisit it over the following weeks, savoring all the little visual and narrative details, letting myself get absorbed into the book’s world.

It seemed incredible to me at the time (and still does) that one person could pull off a book like Fun Home. The art was the first thing that grabbed me, Bechdel’s detailed depictions of her family framed by a consistently clever use of all the usual cartoon devices. Captions and footnotes interact with dialog and in-panel text for a holographic narrative style anyone who has read the better Alan Moore books will immediately recognize (Robert Anton Wilson’s preferred term for this type of Joycean writing—“isomorphic”—applies here too). It’s no wonder it took her seven years.

Necessary Omissions

And here’s where the writing becomes auteurish, clever, profound. Bechdel links her intense, difficult relationship with her father to the father-son themes in Joyce’s Ulysses via the clever trick of having actually studied Ulysses in college while corresponding about it with her dad. A leap backwards through Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus takes us right through the Homeric resonances into the mythic realms of Icarus and St. Stephen’s namesake. Labyrinths and minotaurs and artifice and artificers populate Bechdel’s story, illuminating her very real experiences through the lens of fiction and mythology.

It’s fitting, after all: Bechdel’s father was, among other things, a high school English teacher. (He was also the proprietor of the family funeral home business whose nickname among the family gives the show its title.) Literature was not only a way for them to understand the world, but also a way of communicating with each other. Nerds like us tend to rely on Great Art to communicate—we find everyday language all too lacking in grandeur and subtlety. The cold, distant nature of Bechdel’s relationship with her father takes on epic proportions, and it all gets believably unbelievable in that way that true stories tend to do. When Bechdel’s mother, an amateur actress, takes a role in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s themes collide with Joyce’s and the Irish writers’ works cross-pollinate into a perfect commentary on the real life of this Pennsylvania family. And by the way, I’m just listing a few of these real-life resonances of literary import. Don’t even get me started on Colette and A Chorus Line, each mentioned only briefly in the stage version.

With all those literary layers and Bechdel’s masterful visual artistry, Fun Home the comic reminds of a line of Jeff Vandermeer’s: “It has the economy of design usually only achieved by committees of one.”

And it was this sylvan thicket of allusiveness that Kron and Tesori had the audacity to cut from their musical. It’s still there—it can’t not be—but it tends to get shorthanded. Most of the overtly literary stuff was absent altogether (no mention of Wilde, Proust, Camus, the legendary Fitzgeralds, et al), as was much of the mythological element. I would have made the same decision, most likely. You want literature, spend some time with Agnès Muller. The ghost of it is still there, though, haunting the musical like Bechdel Senior’s extensive book-and-bric-a-brac collection. Theatergoers familiar with the book will be pleased, even if we wanted more; musical theater enthusiasts with no experience of the source will get a compact and powerful 90-minute musical.

Watching the musical unfold at right angles to the familiar comic book, I realized that here were audacious artists who loved it and understood it on levels I hadn’t considered. The aesthetically driven, manic depressive, obsessive compulsive tendencies Alison shared with her father Bruce became more visible, shining through their frustrated dedication to baroque and labyrinthine elegance—Alison with her art, Bruce with his house— especially in the opening few songs. “It All Comes Back,” “Welcome to Our House on Maple Avenue,” and the morbidly charming “Come to the Fun Home” (a sweet Jackson 5 / Partridge Family retro tribute, complete with Laugh-In style backgrounds courtesy of scenic designer William Bloodgood) introduced all these themes, echoing and foreshadowing the tragedies to come. In “It All Comes Back,” Bruce delights in an old silver teapot he finds in a box of “crap” (“Is this junk or silver? With polish we can tell. I love how tarnish melts away”). Grown-up Alison, thirty years in the future, pulls the same teapot out of a box of his stuff she has at her drawing desk, singing “Am I just like you?”

Robert Mammana as Bruce Bechdel and Aida Valentine as Small Alison in “Fun Home” at The Armory. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

Later, during “Helen’s Etude” when Bruce invites the young man he’s trying to seduce to sit in one of his antique chairs, he says “It’s only furniture” and we see how he can be a real prick—that opening number already showed us how important the chair really is to him when it’s the kids who want to touch it (plus, hey, his wife and kids are right there in the other room). Past and present intertwine this way all through the musical, cleverly translating the novel’s holographic style.

From Comic to Tragic

Robert Mammana as Bruce was the show’s biggest revelation for me. The novel’s version of the character (already an adaptation, via Bechdel’s memory and pen) is a severe and temperamental macho intellectual, fleetingly feminine but mostly a tough-minded and uncompromising rural aesthete. His cold, stoic enthusiasm for his house and his books rarely softens (except when young men are around), and he plows through his short, intense life with the kind of repressed passion at which the desperate and secretive so touchingly excel. Comic book Bruce is more violent, both with himself and others. Comic book Bruce is heroic, a giant of a man, a cruel bastard, larger than life, sometimes alarmingly kind, almost invariably lonely beyond all reckoning. His connection with his daughter, via literature and later their outré sexuality, is one of his few contacts with the human race. The rest of the time his mind is on his reading, his home restorations, his obelisks, his sunbathing. His conquests.

Musical Bruce, in Kron and Tesori’s vision, is immediately more charming, more sympathetic. Mammana’s crushingly nuanced take brought out all those layers of mythic resonance that we lost with the literary allusions. Everything from his defiant, frustrated posture and the paradoxically sloppy-precise way he wears his plaid suit and other super cool vintage seventies duds (like the rest of the cast, a nice touch from costume designer and Portland State professor Alison Heryer) to the lithe muscular tension in his forearms and the authoritative tenderness with which he handles his antique furniture and his surgical scissors reveal a man of uncommon intricacy. Mammana’s Bruce is one of those chronic smilers, the sort who’s always trying to make nice and keep things stable while burning inside with an all-consuming inferno of frustrated desire, rage, and disappointment. The degrees of sincerity in that smile, which could turn from affectionate grin to desperate grimace in a heartbeat, made the whole show for me.

L-R: Aida Valentine as Small Alison, Allison Mickelson as Alison and Sara Masterson as Medium Alison in “Fun Home” at The Armory. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv.

The Alisons were spectacular. It only took one Alison Bechdel to make the comic book, but it takes three of her to stage the musical. This was the trick that made the adaptation work: Bechdel’s non-linear, four-dimensional narrative translates sublimely to the stage only because of Kron and Tesori’s decision to not only cast three actors in the same role, but to have them all on stage at the same time. Sometimes Authorial Alison is out front narrating and singing her story; mostly she is off to the edge of the stage, working at her drawing desk, recalling and adapting the scene playing center. The Alisons interact with each other at times, at one point singing a lovely contrapuntal trio together, and there are a handful of extremely effective moments when one Alison will take another’s place.

Allison Mickelson is probably tired of hearing how perfect she is as the grown-up version of Alison Bechdel; she should get used to it, because she is Fucking Perfect as the grown-up version of Alison Bechdel. It’s not just her appearance, although she does bear a fairly striking resemblance—or anyways she does when she’s wearing The Bechdel Look, short dark hair and black glasses and stoic Pennsylvanian gaze atop the jeans and striped shirt and red hoodie that all three Alisons wear. No, Mickelson’s perfection is in the way she captures that classic Bechdel Blend of insecurity and confidence, dorky enthusiasm and nerdy remoteness, unapologetic politics and interpersonal insecurity, utter conviction and crippling self-doubt, candor and enigmatic evasiveness, snobby sophistication and that classic wry, self-effacing sense of humor that is the inheritance of all good writers. This could definitely be the veteran cartoonist who published the quotidian and Byzantine Dykes to Watch Out For for 25 years.

As Author Alison delves into her past, we see two of her younger selves: 10-year-old Small Alison and 19-year-old Medium Alison. Aida Valentine carried Bechdel’s youthful self well: challenging her father, watching the world and trying to understand her place in it, learning how to draw and how to read and how to talk and learning how to dress (and how not to), leading her brothers around and generally acting like a 1970s kid—albeit one who could sing like a grown-up. I wish I had heard Valentine sharing the role of James last year with Theo Curl in Oregon Children’s Theatre’s James and the Giant Peach.

(I’d better allow my fellow Bechdel fans a moment to get over the James and the Giant Peach reference).

Sara Masterson shone as Medium Alison, the first-year college student who finally gets a chance to blossom and discover her own passions: queer books, radical politics, women. Fun Home is, after all, a coming out story as well as a coming of age story, and the musical doesn’t shy away from Medium Alison’s naive and enthusiastic claiming of her sexuality. Masterson particularly shone in “Changing My Major,” an earnest, almost corny ode to her first girlfriend that was among the musical’s finest moments. Kron’s lyrics are clever, hilarious, touching, and sweet—but also ridiculous and a little ironic, like all first love (lesbian cartoonist or otherwise). I couldn’t help thinking of the great Howard Ashman, who was so terribly gifted at precisely this nexus of overflowing sentiment and wit.

And now I’ve gone and made myself all weepy again. It’s a sad fucking musical, make no mistake about that. Where Bechdel’s memoir considers a number of possible interpretations of her father’s death, struggling obsessively over the unanswered questions, Kron and Tesori’s Bruce walks headlong into his deadly destiny.

The book’s network of literary allusions and tightly woven intrathematic matrices contract into a single image: Small Alison flying on her father’s feet, arms outstretched, playing Airplane—no, Superman. This ends up being the adaptation’s greatest metaphor. Where the book played Icarus and Daedalus against Bunbury and the Fitzgeralds, the musical shows us Bechdel as Clark Kent, as Superman, as Kal-El the last son of a dying planet. She leaps into the air, propelled forward by comedy and tragedy and the impossibility of normalcy. She flies into the comics world and thence to the theater, in the company of other loving, audacious, eccentric artists—men and women, actors and musicians, an audience of new and old fans, a world beyond the one she left, beyond the one she made. This is what a good memoir can do. This is what a good musical can do. This is what a good adaptation can do.

Go see it.

Fun Home continues at The Armory through October 22. Be sure to check out all the related special events, including a master class with PCS in-house sound designer Casi Pacilio, a free screening of Persepolis (another graphic memoir adaptation, and a lovely movie), a free happy hour with Portland Lesbian Choir and Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, and various pre-show Q&A sessions. Information and tickets are available at www.pcs.org/funhome.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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3 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Excellent review. Nailed it. Thanks. I saw a preview performance and can’t stop raving about this piece. I especially loved that up explained how Bechdel links her intense, difficult relationship with her father to the father-son themes in Joyce’s Ulysses. Insightful. I look forward to more reviews from you, Matthew.

  2. Lynne Duddy says:

    Excellent review. Nailed it. Thanks. I saw a preview performance and can’t stop raving about this piece. I especially loved that you explained how Bechdel links her intense, difficult relationship with her father to the father-son themes in Joyce’s Ulysses. Insightful. I look forward to more reviews from you, Matthew.

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