Fun Home, the musical adaptation of cartoonist Alison Bechdel‘s graphic memoir, opens with a number introducing the audience to the Bechdel family of Alison’s youth… and the underlying tensions that colored her experience growing up. As her closeted father primps, the rest of the browbeaten family scurries to set their historic house (slash funeral home) aright for a distinguished guest. The chorus is:
Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue!
See how we polish and we shine?
We rearrange and realign.
Everything is balanced and serene
Like chaos never happens if it’s never seen…
It’s a perfect mood setter for a peppy show that explores some of the effects of hiding the more chaotic elements of being human.
When the director of the Chance Theater‘s current production of Fun Home, Marya Mazor, told me that scenic designer Bradley Kaye had chosen to use “alley” seating, arranging the audience in rows flanking a runway-style stage “so that we are truly immersed in the story,” I was apprehensive. Being pulled into the action by actors is high on my list of anxieties when attending live theatre. (Don’t sit on my lap, singing cat!)
I needn’t have worried. In addition to living up to the standard of quality I’ve come to expect from productions at the Chance, the theatre itself is so comfortable that you can’t help but relax there. The emphasis is entirely on the joy of theatre, which means that the audience is dressed relatively casually (even on opening night), that you’re allowed to bring your drink to your seat and that everyone sincerely loves being there. You are physically comfortable enough that once the magic of the show grabs you, the time passes remarkably fast.
I loved Fun Home‘s national tour when I saw it at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts a few years ago, but my experience then was relatively impersonal. I came away deeply moved by the idea that someone in the audience might have grown because they’d been exposed to Bechdel’s story of finding her way as a lesbian while her father loses his as a closeted gay man. The fact that this was also the story of a real person reflecting on losing her father to suicide before she could truly connect with him didn’t hit me as hard.
I suspect this is the real difference between seeing theatre in a venue as intimate as the Chance (there are only three rows of seating on each side of this stage) and seeing it in a massive auditorium. Last time I was watching a universal tale examining the challenges of identifying as homosexual in 20th Century America, and how harmful suppressing the truth can be to individuals and the people around them. This time I was gutted by relating to a real woman who lost her father when she was just discovering who she was, and the bittersweetness of working to know him after he’s gone.
The performances were excellent all around, and Ashlee Espinosa, who plays the adult version of Alison, was their anchor. I accepted her so completely as Bechdel that it was natural to accept the rest of the cast as the family of her memories and her true younger self. Holly Reichert, who plays the youngest version of Alison, deserves a special nod for how ably she carries a substantial amount of the show’s action and dialogue. It’s impossible to play favorites with this cast, though, as each actor has at least one moment in which they completely shine… as brightly as the carefully polished surfaces in the Bechdel home.
If you’re able to make it to Anaheim during Fun Home‘s run, I heartily encourage you to get tickets and go.
Fun Home runs at the Chance Theater in Anaheim, CA, until March 1. Click here for tickets! Here’s a trailer, if you’re curious…