Taking apart âFun Homeâ: A tragedy of comical proportions

Small Alison (Katie Bradshaw), Christian Bechdel (Daniel Drilon) and John Bechdel (Noel Comia) perform an upbeat song number, putting the “fun” in Fun Home.

Taking apart ‘Fun Home’: A tragedy of comical proportions
Mirava M. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – In April 2015, a small production with only 10 cast members won the Tony Awards’ coveted Best Musical award. That musical was Fun Home, based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s “tragicomic” (as she calls it) autobiography with the same title.

It may not have had the glitz of your typical Broadway production, but it was certainly not devoid of glamour. And thanks now to director Bobby Garcia, last month at the Romulo Theater in RCBC Tower, we got to witness Alison’s journey firsthand, just a year after its onstage debut. And oh, what a journey it is.

The play revolves around three key periods in Alison’s life. The first is her childhood as “Small Alison” wherein she tolerates the frenetic behavior of her father, who remains as the single most influential (and sometimes malevolent) force even when she grows up. Alison’s father, Bruce, is a teacher, reader, writer, ex-soldier, real estate mogul, house restorer, etcetera — and he happens to run a crematorium, too. His constant oscillating between jobs is also reflected in his apparent bipolar behavior, which takes a toll on his family.

The second event is the time in college of “Medium Alison” as she attempts to sort out her sexuality. Lastly, Alison the adult is a cartoonist reflecting on her past while illustrating her graphic novel. While analyzing her own history, she often drops in on her own flashbacks to pinpoint foreshadowings of her present situation.

It’s a production rich with depictions of deceit, abuse, death and sexual themes, and yet one of the highly praised aspects of Fun Home is its notably young cast. For that reason, most rehearsals were reportedly done separately, with the child actors having different practice runs so as to distance them from the darker moments of the play.

The Bechdel kids are kid-dy, and jovial, encapsulating the naiveté of childhood perfectly and injecting much-needed whimsy during Alison’s flashbacks. The talented three play their roles perfectly. Katie Bradshaw shines as small Alison, who pulls at your heartstrings with her perpetual quest to win her father’s approval. Her song numbers happen to be the most hum-worthy, and her emoting is equally on point, making for an awesome and heartbreaking performance. Her brothers Christian and John are enthusiastically played by Daniel Drilon and Noel Comia Jr. who both delight audiences with the uproarious Come to the Fun Home. You can’t help but miss them by the second half of the play, when the brothers fade into the background as they have seemingly faded from Alison’s life.

Lea Salonga is one of the play’s selling points as the woefully under-used Helen (Bruce’s wife and Alison’s mother). To no one’s surprise, she makes quick and easy work of her ballad Days and Days, a standout in the already emotion-laden second half. Once again, she proves that she’s an expert at playing a conflicted mother who has unwillingly distanced herself from her child, and her dynamic with Alison is the perfect picture of every mother struggling with connecting to a daughter.

But since the father-daughter bond is the crux of Fun Home, Helen is overshadowed by Bruce (played by Eric Kunze) in every way. He walks the fine line between despicable and pitiable, with every scene pulling you one way or the other. Of all characters, he comes across as the most flawed, and therefore the most authentic.

Providing a pleasant interlude in between nostalgia and the dismal present is Medium Alison (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante), whose epiphany when it comes to her sexuality is hilarious and relatable for many teens. It’s a shame that we never get to see how Medium Alison is transformed from an insecure, quiet girl into the confident, sagely woman played by Cris Villonco, who commentates all these moments from her studio apartment.

Helen Bechdel (Lea Salonga) has an emotional heart-to-heart with her daughter Alison (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante).

Nevertheless, the play is a well-balanced trifecta of childhood, puberty and the one event that transforms you into an adult.

A frequent criticism of Fun Home during its Broadway run was the question of whether the comic should have been adapted into a straight play instead. But nothing encapsulates the thrill of a morning after like the number Changing My Major, or the wonder of meeting a hero as a child like in Ring of Keys.

Alison’s crooning monologues transform into some of the most memorable moments in the play, thanks to her catchy reveries. The music is consistent, mixing deceptively sing-song-y tones with sinister undertones in the lyrics. A lot of moments touch you, sung or un-sung. Though other times, it feels as if the play is forcefully jackhammering sadness into your amygdala. After all, there are only so many times you can cringe at the conspicuous displays of parental neglect.

Ultimately, Fun Home provides a welcome respite especially in the wake of world news that has been bad, worse and downright crushing. Its themes have never been more relevant, as it raises the issue of having to hide one’s identity and the consequences of doing so when faced with public persecution as an alternative. It emphasizes the skeletons that inevitably fall out of the closet, whether you want them to or not, and how they can affect people around you. It teaches some of the myriad ways people deal with tragedy. Some end up becoming tragedy themselves; others transform them into art that becomes award-winning musicals.

 

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