Alison Bechdel

‘Fun Home’ review: tragicomic

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

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.

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DramaWatch Weekly: A test, a lull, lean prose

On Portland stages, it's a week for "Fun Home," Raymond Carver, catching up with "An Octoroon," and checking the horizon

Let there be more than one female character.

Let them talk to each other.

Let them have a conversation that’s less than 100 percent about men.

A.L. Adams

That’s The Bechdel Test, a set of guidelines Graphic Novelist Alison Bechdel sensibly suggested in 1985 as a way to vet narratives for basic fairness. In my theater reviews, I’ve used it—not because it’s a buzzword, I could give a rip—but because when I find myself already bothered by a 2-D plot, applying this test gives me an impartial reason why. #notallmen. See what I did there? Never mind.

Here’s something extraordinary: Alison Bechdel has an autobiographical musical, Fun Home.

What’s more, it’s won a Tony, and I bet it passes the Test. It opens this week at Portland Center Stage at The Armory.

Aida Valentine (left), Karsten George (center), and Theo Curl in “Fun Home.” Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Think-piece brinksmen on Bechdel’s level, those whose theories have become common knowledge, rarely produce their own art. Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, rode “The Tipping Point” to the edge, but not to Broadway. Richard Florida, who championed and later renounced “The Creative Class,” never made a musical about it (arguably, The Music Man scooped him). Yet here comes Alison Bechdel—the mind behind the pen that’s pinpointed exactly what was wrong with so many others’ stories—striding into the spotlight* to answer a dare critics-who-are-also-artists hear daily: “Let’s see you try it.”

Okay. Bam. Tony.

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