Hannah is a queer theatre maker human alien person.
Elaina is a queer director & new play enthusiast.

The Take Away

  • A uniformly excellent cast.

  • Don’t tell stories about us without us.

  • Props to the Arden for a positive and measured response to an open-letter from the queer community!

  • More stories by queer folx on mainstages, PLEASE and THANK YOU!

  • Happy Pride, y’all.

 

In Our Pockets

Hannah
I auditioned for this show, I’m friends with many of the performers and creative staff, and work about queerness and family and childhood and memory hits me in my dang sweet spot. I saw the touring production of Fun Home when it was at The Merriam last year.

Elaina
I’ve never seen a production of Fun Home, I have relationships with a few members of the team, and I was a part of group of queer artists and allies that sent a letter to Terry Nolen and the Arden with demands for a higher level of queer representation in the room, as well as meaningful programming for queer audiences.

((We’re both here and queer!))


The Project

Hannah
So before we talk about the production, I feel like we need to unpack the larger conversation surrounding Fun Home getting produced by The Arden this season.

Elaina
For sure! It’s super exciting to see queer narratives on regional stages, and I was excited to have an opportunity to see the piece presented by local artists. That being said, I was skeptical about the representation of queer voices in the room. I don’t think there’s a way to meaningfully discuss this piece without discussing the optics and intricacies of queer representation on stage.

Hannah
WORD. Yeah, it’s tricky. There’s a part of me that’s like WOOO The Arden is putting this queer play on their mainstage! This is huge! I want them to get good feedback, so they do more / better! But also, you don’t get an automatic pass for doing the bare minimum in terms of queer representation. Optics matter. This show is by and for queer people, and it’s essential that queer folx get to tell their own stories. Or else regional theatre institutions are just capitalizing on queer narratives.

Elaina
The good old “don’t tell stories about us, without us.”

Hannah
And it’s worth noting – there’s been lots of trickiness historically surrounding Fun Home and its optics. Which makes sense. IT IS OUR ONLY *mainstream* QUEER MUSICAL. There’s a story about how when they were first casting the show, someone drew glasses on Laura Benanti’s headshot to see if she could read as a butch lesbian. The tour of the show was plagued with controversy surrounding the “de-butching” of Alison. (Although Lisa Kron eventually stepped in and, I think, gave a very satisfactory response.) And, yaknow, God Bless Sam Gold – he did an impeccable job directing the original Broadway production, but he is a SWM. And that sets a precedent.


Elaina
Early after they announced their season and a few key casting choices, a group of queer artists and allies penned a thoughtful (mostly private) email to Terry Nolen (Artistic Director & Director of Fun Home) and the Arden expressing concerns about the lack of queer representation on their team, and I have to say their response was really positive. The email exchange went back and forth a few times, and at the end of the day we ended up with several openly queer actors on stage, core queer members of the production team, and a PWYD performance that gave it’s proceeds to the William Way Center.

I bring this up for two reasons– the first is that I don’t think the representation would have been as strong if this communication hadn’t happened, but ALSO– it worked. This regional theatre heard the queer community, and they took action steps to improve the representation and programming surrounding the show. I think it’s important to acknowledge this Arden team on their Journey of Unlearning in the American Theatre, and I applaud them for these steps.

Hannah
IS THIS THE GAY AGENDA? IS THIS THE FUTURE LIBERALS WANT?

Elaina
I’m just saying that these conversations are so important! Change can start at the bottom, but those in power have to listen for major shifts to happen.


The Performances

Elaina
This was a strong cast for me.

Hannah
Oh same. I thought the cast was uniformly goddamn excellent.  
Let’s start with Izzy Castaldi, yeah?

Elaina
They were the brightest light for me in this production. Izzy has an incredible voice and walked the fine line of youthful awkwardness, blossoming maturity, self-discovery, and trauma in this role.

Hannah
Their singing voice really struck me – so clear and human and authentic. “Changing My Major” had me actually weeping. The fine balance between embarrassment and total bliss! I felt like they were able to live in this beautiful and relatable space where they were never mocking, but fully 100% living in the messy wonderment of your first queer sexual encounter. It’s such an incredibly vulnerable moment.

I also want to add – I feel like I learned something new from Izzy’s work in this production. Their Medium Alison was scared and unsure, while simultaneously rejecting the queer shame narrative pushed on by her father. And that rejection in turn is what undoes Bruce. This came through really strongly in Izzy’s choices during the phone call home when Medium Alison confronts her father. Teasing out fear from shame is so important, I think, to the way we tell queer coming of age stories onstage. So, props! To! Izzy!

Elaina
I completely agree. I learned so much from watching them– particularly those moments between Medium Alison and Joan. Those two were so tender and truthful to a queer experience. I was so grateful for Jackie Soro’s contrasting performance– she brought such a chill, cool, generous energy to Joan. I actually think the Joan track is really tricky– she doesn’t have a musical moment, she’s mostly responsive, and she isn’t meant to pull focus. I completely understand why Medium Alison chose Joan, based on Jackie’s performance. She was there to graciously intake Alison’s angst as she comes to terms with her sexuality, while navigating family drama.

Hannah
Oh, agreed. Joan is tricky! Generous is exactly the word I’d use to describe Jackie’s work. I really appreciated her openness. I’ve seen Joan played as a sort of painfully cool stereotype in the past, and I really dug her groundedness and simplicity.

Elaina
Okay, let’s talk about Alison Bechdel. Mary Tuomanen doesn’t sing enough on Philadelphia stages, if you ask me. It’s true that I could watch her quietly watch another actor for a good while– and that’s so much of the heart of this piece.

Hannah
YUP. Ditto. That track is HARD. You just watch and watch and absorb, and don’t really get to split open until “Telephone Wire.” It’s just being aggressively present. Doing nothing, but actively listening, and simultaneously anchoring the whole production. Mary had some really altruistic moments with the ensemble, balanced with this total deer-in-the-headlights energy when the memories became overwhelming. But it was all kept painstakingly under a lid, until it was time for release.

Elaina
I was enraptured by her performance– specifically the moments where she got very close to her young self (the moment where Bruce criticizes Small Alison’s drawings, the dress/barrett moments, Middle Alison and Joan). I also appreciate Mary’s effortless comedic abilities. She can lightly sprink dialogue on the audience, and it’s a lovely truthful quality that she brings to the role.

Hannah
YES. Those moments were particularly dynamic for me too. Watching this production, I realized that this is a piece that’s really about how we choose to engage with our trauma, and its tenuous relationship with memory. Which, like, duh. But also, this script is goddamn special. Thank you, Mary, for shepherding us through with such vulnerability and veracity.

Elaina
Ben Dibble!

Hannah
Yeah, Ben Dibble as Bruce Bechdel destroyed me. Those moments in the car were so agonizing. The weight of the one thousand unsaid things between a child and a parent. Guh. Ow. And some of his early moments in the play, where he engages with his still burgeoning sexual energy. They really broke my heart.

Elaina
His final song tied so much of the piece together for me. The way he related to the space– his house, his self-worth, there was so much tied into that– made me realize that the whole piece had been set up to unleash this moment.

Hannah
I also really dug his descent into mania. It really became a portrait of someone unwell. Like, this is what homophobia and self-hatred do to a person. His final moments in the play were deeply beautiful, and deeply upsetting. Props to Ben for going there full-throttle.

Elaina
I thought Ben’s energy played perfectly in contrast to the refined and restrained performance given by Kim Carson as Helen Bechdel. She is so delicate, but so strong. I loved her quiet tense moments, the moments that she chooses to stand up for herself, her obvious love and dedication to her family. Kim’s presence was so clearly the backbone of this broken family, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.

Hannah
Kim Carson also slayed me. And that track is also so hard! Okay, I’m realizing I think most of the tracks in this play are really challenging. But. When I saw the show on tour, the mother made zero impression on me. (No shade – I think the proscenium killed my ability to connect, to be frank.) But Kim! Her Days and Days song! She has the voice of an angel. And was so pained and restrained. Such beautiful, simple work.

Elaina
I really do feel like this cast was so connected, and listening so well. Kim was the perfect example of that quiet success.

Hannah
The more we talk about the cast, the more I realize that this ensemble was truly an ensemble. Duh. What I mean is – they were alllll on the same page. I feel like I could describe everyone’s work as “simple, generous, grounded, and open-hearted.” Everyone was breathing the same air.

 

The Direction

Elaina
This production had a clean, simple energy that I appreciated. I’ve seen some flashy work from director Terry Nolen and the Arden, but I was grateful that this production felt stripped down in a way that served this specific story.

Hannah
Totally.
I had some difficulty with the pacing in some moments. I feel like the play can reflect the conceit that it’s a comic book in some really cool ways – brisk page turns, things sorted into squares, harsh corners. Yafeel?

Elaina
Yeah, I also felt some jolts in the pacing and shape of the piece, which for me stemmed from the language of the transitions.

Hannah
I think the piece was missing a strong cohesive vision. We were in the round, like in the original, and under this heavy suggestive roof. Everything was white, and fairly literal. I didn’t see a lot of directorial brush strokes beyond that. And maybe that’s fine? I feel like I really heard the play. Perhaps that was the point. Suffice to say, this was a fairly uncluttered production. I appreciated that.

Elaina
I disagree with that statement about vision. I do think there was a vision behind it, and that the vision dug into a skeletal-blank-page-fill-in-the-story-vibe. I did appreciate the simplicity of the space, though I think it set up some challenges for the rhythm.

Hannah
Heard! The transitions felt occasionally kind of muddy to me, which slowed down the juggernaut. I sometimes thought we were waiting on a musical cue, or on a set change, when we should have been barrelling forward. I don’t think this piece can afford to get sentimental until the final scene.

Elaina
Sure, I definitely hear that. There were some transitional moments that I have questions about, which I think comes from a design criticism that I have– which definitely relates to direction for me.

OKAY, so we have a big white circular area, then everything else is black– including the large alley where a lot of our main entrances happen. All scenic pieces are also white, and must enter through this black area. That meant that every single time the ensemble rolled scenic pieces into the space there were large white objects coming from a black space, a flurry of bodies emerging, and then disappearing in a way that couldn’t help but pull enormous focus… but I don’t feel like the production told me where to look. I craved guidance in these transitions, and often felt like the large movement set me up for a level of energy that the top of the following scene couldn’t match. The transitions felt like a lot of unfocused commotion that was followed by a quiet energy that fell flat in the early moments of the scenes.

Hannah
I feel that. There were some quiet, close moments that really worked for me though! I heard that Terry stepped back and let the Associate Director do a lot of the direction specifically surrounding queerness onstage. Which is rad!! I’m here for that!

Elaina
Yeah, after talking to some cast members it’s clear that Associate Director Jennie Eisenhower was a super important guiding presence in the room. Which makes so much sense! Jennie has a strong musical theatre background, a great directorial eye, and brought a queer woman’s perspective to the rehearsal room. The intimate moments in the piece were very truthful, and really struck a chord with me. I’m grateful that Terry and Jennie collaborated so well with these actors on this subject matter.

Hannah
I do wonder what might have happened with an AFAB and/or queer person at the helm. I’m still aching for a Fun Home directed from an overtly queer perspective.

Elaina
I wonder about that as well. There was something about Mary’s (Alison) placement on stage that left me questioning the amount of focus that she was given in the piece– and maybe this relates to that? She was often tucked into the up stage left corner (on a black surface) while the action happened in this white circle. That is NOT a strong position on stage, and she often was washed into the background. So much of this piece is about Alison putting together the timeline of her queerness and how it intersects with her father’s death. I so appreciated the moments where she was more present, but sometimes felt like she was shoved into the background, rather than really digging in to her quiet, watchful presence. I think there was an opportunity for us to be more connected to Alison, and that the placement of her nook took away from that.

 

The Design

Hannah
I thought the sound design in particular was excellent. Sound in the round is HARD. But I heard the piece loud and clear. Props to Sound Designer Jorge Cousineau. Ben Dibble actually mentioned to me in the lobby that there were individual speakers placed inside the stage all around, which is ingenious.

Elaina
The mix was excellent. I felt like every moment was balanced, and crystal clear. Audio Engineer John Kolbinski is the real deal– he beautifully mixed that piece. Very impressive.

Hannah
I thought the costumes (by Rosemarie McKelvey) were noticeably great. (Honestly Kim Carson’s wig alone is Barrymore worthy. And Izzy, please keep that vest. Did anyone else notice their vest matched the sleeping bag?? Just me? Loved that detail.) The only thing that piqued me a little in the whole costume schema was Ben Dibble’s shorts.

Elaina
For context, the night that Hannah and I saw the piece the audience laughed when Ben Dibble entered in denim cut-off short-shorts.

Hannah
Everyone laughing really miffed me. I felt like we were laughing at this gay stereotype, which is the opposite of what the play wants to be doing. But. I know we laugh at what makes us uncomfortable. So maybe that’s the point, really. Watching this closeted man, who is awkward in his body, be exposed in such an explicit way. HMM. It’s tricky.

Elaina
Okay, but I think the play sets us up for that laugh in some way. The audience has been given insight into Bruce’s homosexuality– so this moment of him in short-shorts is an insider moment with the audience. We as an audience know, but nobody else on stage does– so it’s us picking up on all of the signs that have been there all along. I think that’s where the laugh stemmed from, but maybe I’m being too optimistic. I thought he looked GREAT.

Hannah
I thought the lighting (by Thom Weaver) was lovely in the final moment with Bruce. And the square of light surrounding the sleeping bags was really crisp – it was one of the few times I felt like the comic book motif was truly utilized in the piece. Although, looking back, my sightline from my seat may have limited my sensitivity to this. Thom Weaver is a genius. I sort of wish he’d been set loose to do something even starker and more imaginative. But I realize that might have jarred against the production on the whole.

Elaina
I liked the sleeping bag moment and the final moment of lighting as well (that was a perfectly called cue, good work to Stage Manager Alec E. Ferrell), but I craved more focus from the lighting in this piece. There were a few standout flashy moments, but otherwise I often didn’t know where to look. I say this with the full acknowledgement that it is HARD to light a white space, but I think we suffered the loss of some fine-tuned check-ins with Older Alison in tough moments of the story.

Hannah
The props were all sort of delicate in this way I really appreciated. They felt like soft little memories! I do think the design was super literal, which isn’t always my bag. But I thought Properties Master Christopher Haig did a very graceful job.

Elaina
I enjoyed the overall aesthetic of the props/furniture when they were set, but found their movement to be unsuccessful in the rhythm of the piece.

Hannah
Okay, the scenic design by James Kronzer– I didn’t love the heaviness of the roof. It was a little too New England ginger-bread-house for me. It’s weight and ornateness felt distracting. Maybe this is a taste thing, though. The roof feeling heavy and too fancy was probably the point!

And I thought the white downstage / black upstage was visually interesting, but never used in a way that felt super engaging. Which is fine. Still, I thought the dark funnel upstage was useful. It felt like the depths of memory! I appreciated set pieces shuffling out of this dark chasm, into an exposed white circle.

Elaina
I think that black alley upstage worked super well for the silhouette funeral home moment and the final headlights/Bruce death moment. Otherwise, I struggled with watching white furniture move in and out of that space, and felt like it tucked Mary (Alison) away in a shadowy, out-of-focus space.

Hannah
Right, sure.
Also wanna add – I think the band sounded great! I am such a sucker for a live band. This is the most I’ve ever enjoyed the score of Fun Home. The orchestrations felt really tender, but had a wonderful sense of drive. And everyone sounded LOVELY vocally. Which I know is a testament to the musical direction– we’re talking to you Ryan Touhey and Pax Ressler!


WRAP UP

Hannah
This is my favorite production of a musical I’ve ever seen at the Arden. Just wanna toss that out there. The cast was strong, the design was overall very clean and accomplished. And duh, the story f*cking hit me in my feels. That doesn’t hurt. (But also IT HURTS. Catch me crying in the alley post-show!)

Elaina
I really enjoyed watching this production, and was very impressed by the cast’s performances. I am grateful that The Arden produced this piece, and look forward to more queer narratives being presented on their mainstage!

Hannah
I feel really encouraged by the positive outcomes of the conversations surrounding representation on this production. THIS IS HOW IT’S SUPPOSED TO WORK. Right? Right? Is this another positive train stop on the Journey of Unlearning in American Theatre?

Elaina
THIS. IS. THE GAY. AGENDA.

Hannah
More queer shows on mainstages! More queer artists making queer shows on mainstages!  Gay Agenda, over and out.

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