By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
We are all haunted, every one of us. By the great mysteries of our past: our families. By the questions we live with that never got answered. By the tiny moments that slipped by at the time unrecognized, but in retrospect are vivid, maybe seminal. By the parents we didn’t quite realize were actual people till later, when we were all grown-up and looking back.
That’s the emotional landscape of the remarkably complex and textured, moving, funny and sad musical Fun Home that the Plain Janes have brought to the Varscona in a deeply affecting production directed by Dave Horak. It will get you, right in the heart. And here’s the contradiction that should send you forth to see it: It’s shattering, but somehow it’s not bleak; it’s enlivening.
Based on a best-selling graphic novel memoir by the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the 2015 Tony Award winner is a genuine original. So much of the musical theatre is about the embodying the vivacity, the eternal animation, of youth. Subtitled “A Family Tragicomic, Fun Home is a grown-up musical that steps outside nearly every musical theatre convention. It puts onstage Alison the graphic artist at 43 (Jocelyn Ahlf), sketch pad in hand to try and reassess, in comic panels and test captions, her young selves, little-girl Alison (Jillian Aisenstat) and college-girl Alison (Bella King). It’s the latter who tentatively then decisively comes to realize she’s gay at about the same time she realizes her father is gay, too. All three actors are eye-wateringly good.
The elusive figure who haunts all the Alisons at every age is her father Bruce, a high school English teacher who also restores old houses, and runs a funeral home (the title “fun home”). He’s a mercurial character, to say the least, a mass of contradictions as Jeff Haslam’s multi-faceted portrait conveys with such fierce attention to detail. He’s harsh and imperious, easily exasperated, always on edge, sometimes oddly soulful. He’s a question mark of a guy: an intellectual, a perfectionist, a stickler for rules and image in art and in life, the spit-and-polish facade of the ideal family. He also picks up young boys.
It’s this double life, in the closet and in lovingly refinished vintage houses, that brings Alison to the remembering and reassessing that is the raison d’être of Fun Home. Who is the man who played airplane with his little daughter, who sent her James Joyce and Colette novels at college, who cruised high school boys? Who is the man who fatally stands in front of a moving truck just weeks after Alison comes out? “I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then,” she sings at the outset. “It all comes back….”
Horak sets his production in motion on a square that’s a sketch pad, open-ended with empty window frames on one side. And Ahlf’s Alison, watchful and often wincing, is onstage drawing the panels from her past, imagined and lived, and experimenting with the right caption. It’s a wonderful performance — alert and engaged, wry, rueful, self-mocking, and appalled — by an actor whose dramatic and musical range seems unlimited. The final father-daughter scene she shares with Haslam’s Bruce, at the point of connection or disintegration, is devastating.
Fun Home’s originality extends to the way the music — by Jeanine Tesori, lyrics by the librettist Lisa Kron — melts into the drama so skilfully you can scarcely separate them. Ah, but there are exceptions to this, too. The scene in which the Bechtel kids, upbraided by dad (“I told you ‘do not play in the caskets!'”), create a home-made ad for the family business is a riot (choreographed by Jason Hardwick). So is the Partridge Family-esque number, Everything’s All Right, a spirited ode to the lie of happy families ‘70s style (costumes by Maralyn Ryan).
Middle Alice, who realizes at college something about herself she’s always known when she meets Joan (Karina Cox), comes out in a song. King captures the rush and the musing wonder of discovery in the buoyant Changing My Major (“I’m changing my major to Joan”). Aisenstat, who has an amusing kind of sturdy briskness to her that echoes her dad’s decisiveness, is in charge of one of Fun Home’s most elusive, deceptively simple song, Ring of Keys, in which the little girl reveals her secret attraction to a butch woman. Aisenstat knows exactly how to deliver it, without over-inflecting or interpreting. She and King are finds for Edmonton theatre.
In a way, Alison’s mother Helen is the least-explored character, living within the cruel and secret confines established by a closeted gay husband. The song in which she emerges from the shadows to explain to her daughter how she’s kept the facade going, Days and Days, has huge impact in Kate Ryan’s performance. She doesn’t cry; you will.
The veteran musical director Janice Flower does a terrific job with the huge variety of music, from the fragmented and dissonant to the tuneful and jaunty. She and her musical forces give Horak’s production a momentum that never feels hard-driven. It’s not that kind of musical, even though the stakes are life and death, survival and happiness.
Life is funny; our motives are tangled, and look different from every angle. Fun Home is for funerals, but it’s also a house of mirrors. Seek it out, and see yourself.
Varscona Theatre Ensemble
Theatre: The Plain Jane Theatre Company
Written by: Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel
Directed by: Dave Horak
Starring: Jocelyn Ahlf, Jeff Haslam, Bella King, Jillian Aisenstat, Kate Ryan, Karina Cox, Gabriel Gagnon, Carter Woodley, Connor Woodley
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Friday through April 20