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Beautiful journey: Trustus’s ‘Fun Home’ is “a musical celebration of finding who you are”

If you’re ready to laugh, cry, and be carried away by live on-stage entertainment, Trustus Theatre’s latest musical production, Fun Home, may be the show for you.

Fun Home is an award-winning musical based on the graphic memoir of the same name.  It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the 2015 Tony Award for “Best Musical” and “Best Original Score,” and now Trustus has brought this warm, funny, yet heartbreaking story to its stage in Columbia.

Local creative artist Robin Gottlieb portrays the lead character, Alison Bechdel.  “The character is an actual person who is alive and well—she is a famous writer and cartoonist, a dynamic artist.  This is basically her autobiography,” Gottlieb explained.

You might already know who Alison Bechdel is—or, at least, you may have heard about “the Bechdel test.”

The Bechdel test is used to evaluate the role of women in movies, theatre, and books—specifically, if a work shows women talking to each other about anything else besides a man.  “It’s a way to critique the role of women in film—determining, are they just there to support the male characters, or are they just arm candy,” explained Gottlieb.

The transition of Fun Home from a graphic memoir to the stage makes Alison Bechdel the first lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical.  The play details Alison’s relationship with her father, who committed suicide. Although Gottlieb feels it is a “very sad story” and “very serious subject matter,” she acknowledges that the play remains “upbeat…definitely light-hearted in nature.”

“It leaves you with a feeling of hope and closure,” said Gottlieb.

“It’s not intimidating, like one of those plays that are so heavy and deep you leave the theatre thinking, ‘Maybe I wasn’t smart enough to get that,’ ” said Gottlieb.  “It’s very simple and beautiful in structure, and there really is something for everyone.”

Alison Bechdel is a character whom Gottlieb has wanted to portray for years.  After reading the book Fun Home years ago, she became fascinated by Bechdel as a feminist and an artist.  “Especially when I heard the music and it won the Tony in 2015, it became kind of like a ‘bucket list’ role for me,” she explained.  “I really identified with her, and I wanted to honor her as a person.  I’m trying my best do it justice, which is very terrifying and exhilarating.”

Gottlieb said she dyed her hair and cut it very short to start “getting into Alison mode.” She also spent a great deal of time researching Bechdel’s life and work and studying her speech, body language, and behavior in video interviews.  She hopes that her performance will make Alison seem less like a musical theatre character and more like a truly authentic human being.

Paul Kaufmann plays the role of Alison’s father, Bruce Bechdel, in the play.  Bruce, like Alison, is a creative individual who teaches English and even has a hobby doing historic restoration.  But Bruce is also “a deeply conflicted person who’s struggling mightily, attempting to reconcile his feelings and his actions,” according to Kaufmann.

Kaufmann was struck by the musical’s composition—he described the music as “layered and nuanced and flat beautiful.”  But he also feels the writers themselves give the play some of its strength; not only did Alison Bechdel write the original book, but two other female artists—Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori—composed the award-winning musical together.  “I think it’s important to note that this musical was created by women,” said Kaufmann.  “I love performing in this unflinching and brave examination of one artist’s young life.”

Like Gottlieb, the rehearsals and preparation for Fun Home were rigorous for Kaufmann, whose character’s suicide is one of the driving emotional forces of the play.  “I do a feel a little beat up—emotionally and physically—when the show is over,” he acknowledged.  “But it’s worth it in every way…the whole process has been full of joy.”

Director Chad Henderson described preparing for opening night as “a very rich process.”  “This show has come with its challenges like any production, but I feel like it’s been particularly unified across the board in regards to the actors, crew, and designers.  It just proves that theatre is a highly collaborative art form, and while I may be the director – I’m ultimately a medium to channel everyone’s creative energies and expressions,” said Henderson.  “That’s thrilling. This team has done tremendous work, and I can’t wait for Columbia to experience it. It’s very special.”

Because of the realistic nature of the play, Fun Home may be the musical that appeals to both seasoned theatre lovers and even those individuals who think they just can’t get into musicals.  “It is not typical music theatre with tapdancing, glitter, sparkly costumes, big makeup and me singing to the back row with jazz hands,” Gottlieb acknowledged with a laugh.  “It’s cinematic.  It’s a very different style of theatre—a small set that really makes it more intimate.”

“The whole cast is really great. We see the Bechdel children when they’re young, too, and our young actor/singers are phenomenal,” said Kaufmann. “The show has a very smart structure, bouncing back and forth through three different time periods.”

While the play may not be suitable for all children, Gottlieb believes that teenagers and adults will find it awe-inspiring.  “It is dealing with the issues of homosexuality and suicide, but it’s not real ‘in your face,’” explained Gottlieb.  “It’s just a beautiful coming of age story about being an adult and looking back at your parents and family through adult eyes.”

According to Henderson, Fun Home “explores a very human story.”

“It…shows us courageous people can be,” he said.  “I think audiences can expect to experience a full range of engagement with the piece. You’ll see yourself in the characters. You’ll remember your childhood and you’ll think about your parents. You laugh, cry, and feel hopeful in the end. It’s no surprise that this show made such an impact on Broadway – it’s well-crafted and varied in the experiences it proffers.”

Henderson said he wanted to direct Fun Home because the musical has gripping themes that are likely to touch anyone in the audience—even people who have lived very different lives from Alison.  “For me, I find a lot of connection with the struggle of living authentically that this show presents,” explained Henderson. “No matter what your life has been like, I think we’ve all found times when we behave according to societal expectations rather than according to our true desires.”

“It’s uplifting,” said Kaufmann.  “A musical celebration of finding who you are and learning to live out that truth.”

“The audience should expect to go on a journey with us,” promised Gottlieb.  “You’re going to laugh, cry, and it’s going to punch you right in the feels.  You don’t have to be gay or have experienced suicide in your life.  If you come from any kind of family, you can relate to it.”

Fun Home debuts at Trustus Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday, March 23, and runs through April 14.  Tickets and showtimes can be found online at the Trustus Theatre website.

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