by Caroline Cunfer
Alison Bechdel’s relentlessly sincere memoir adapts into musical form like her tragicomedy graphic novel, “Fun Home,” and the Circle in the Square Theater were meant to be. In a stunning translation of the non-linear structure of the novel, director Sam Gold and choreographer Danny Mefford beautifully orchestrate the interaction of the three Alisons, each representing the cartoonist at a different point in her life. Bechdel’s unconventional sort of detective story is built upon the complications of memory as she tries to confront her relationship with her late father.
The stage functions as the Bechdel’s unstable home; actors move furniture around revealing its unsteady nature, yet Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel (a brilliant and mesmerizing Michael Cerveris,) is adamant about keeping his home polished, pristine, and without a trace of the present chaos. We soon find out his obsession with the museum-like appearance of his antiquated home mirrors his need to maintain his own facade that, although Alison makes attempts to dismantle, remains rigid and distorted. Amongst the polished silver and lavish wallpaper is an undercurrent of deception and falsehood as Bruce frantically masquerades the inner tumult afflicting his entire family.
The charged staging decisions are subtle until the moment of epiphany when their significance emerges and you stand dumbfounded at the purposeful and important implications. Squares of light resembling comic book scenes appear, furniture seamlessly moves in and out of trap doors as memories overcome Alison and then promptly exit, reflecting her reluctance to trust memory.
“Fun Home” is the Bechdel’s nickname for the family’s funeral home, and reflects the Bechdel’s oddly desensitized relationship with a death. When Alison is just a young girl, her father casually calls her over to the corpse he’s working on to ask her to hand him a pair of scissors, and Alison attempts to make sense of the intention behind her puzzling first encounter with a dead body. In a later scene, Small Alison and her younger brothers pop out of a coffin and perform a commercial for their “Fun Home” (“In our hearse there’s a backwards seat”) in the spot-on spontaneity and silliness of childhood.
Sydney Lucas embodies a fun-loving and spunky Small Alison with extreme depth and honest, raw emotion. In “Ring of Keys,” Lucas portrays Small Alison in an intimate moment of self-discovery, understanding, and youthful infatuation as a butch delivery woman enters a luncheonette she and her father are eating in.
Fast forward (or backwards) to Alison’s first year at Oberlin where we meet Joan, a wry and self-possessed classmate played by a brilliantly dry Roberta Colindrez who soon becomes Alison’s first girlfriend. “He didn’t send you a book on Toulouse Lautrec” she observes point-blank when Middle Alison speculates her father sent her “Colette” in response to her interest in French art. After they spend the night together, a radiant Emily Skeggs in baggy white underwear accesses her feelings for Joan for the first time in an unembellished musical moment.
String-dominant, rambling and bouncy music by Jeanine Tesori courses through the performance, Lisa Kron’s lyrics heavy and the closest musical theater can get to resembling a conversation. Poignant lyrics simply and honestly express the inner-workings of a revelation, the bubbling fledgling emotions of a first love, or a trepidatious urge.
The chilling and syncopated “Telephone Wire” is Alison’s last attempt to connect with her father; a few days later he kills himself by stepping in front of a truck. A compelling Beth Malone creates a tragically beautiful moment as she tries to relive the memory, reproaching herself for not being able to say something. Alison painfully tries to come to terms with this last conversation with her father, in disbelief that they were never able to connect. (“There’s a moment I’m forgetting where you tell me you see me.”)
Bold, precious, and unparalleled, “Fun Home” fearlessly tells a story of truth, discovery, disjointed relationships, and the complex power of memory. It is now playing an open-ended run at the Circle in the Square Theater.
Caroline is Theater/Books Editor. Email her at email@example.com