It’s already been a strong theater season in Chapel Hill – and it gets even stronger this weekend, as an innovative new musical makes its Southeastern debut at Deep Dish and two stage classics open at Playmakers.
At Deep Dish Theater Company, Halloween is opening night for “The Landing,” a new musical – or trio of musicals, to be precise – from John Kander, the composer of “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” Kander and playwright Greg Pierce have created three mini-musicals, each with a four-person cast (the same four actors appear in all three) and a bit of a Twilight Zone flair. Deep Dish Artistic Director Paul Frellick directs the musical, which stars John Allore, Mark Ridenour, Erin Tito, and Neil Bullard (who’s only 13). Frellick says he’s particularly excited about this show, because Deep Dish’s production is the first time “The Landing” has been staged anywhere in the world outside New York.
Paul Frellick and Neil Bullard joined WCHL’s Aaron Keck on the air last week to discuss “The Landing.”
Meanwhile, previews begin on Saturday for two shows at Playmakers Repertory Company: Shakespeare’s classic “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the acclaimed Sondheim musical “Into the Woods.” Playmakers is staging the two in rotating repertory: previews run throughout the week, then both shows officially open on Saturday, November 8, and run through December 6. In addition to the Playmakers team, the shows feature a number of guest performers and directors – including Lisa Brescia, who’s playing the Witch in “Into the Woods.” (Brescia has some experience playing musical witches: she’s also played Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway.)
“Midsummer” director Shana Cooper joined Aaron on the air this week…
…as did Playmakers associate artistic director Jeff Meanza, who’s playing the Baker in “Into the Woods.”
“The Landing” runs through November 22 at Deep Dish Theater Company, located in University Mall. Visit this link for ticket information, as well as a schedule of related events and discussions.
Theater season is in full swing in Chapel Hill – this weekend, PlayMakers Repertory Company opens its 2014-15 season with “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – and as things kick into high gear, you still have one more chance to catch the season’s first big don’t-miss-it production, the terrific “A Kid Like Jake” at Deep Dish. It closes this weekend after a successful run, with shows in the University Mall theater on Thursday at 7:30 and Friday and Saturday at 8:00.
Making its first appearance here after a successful run in New York last year, “Jake” is the story of Alex (Meredith Sause) and Greg (Jim Moscater), two parents trying to place their four-year-old son Jake in an elite private preschool. It’s harder than it sounds: there are dozens of applicants for every open spot, and the schools are looking for any excuse to rule candidates out. They even subject the kids to high-stakes placement exams. (It’d be farcical if it weren’t true.) Alex and Greg seek advice from Judy (Rasool Jahan), the renowned expert who runs Jake’s current school, and she suggests they emphasize Jake’s most distinguishing characteristic – namely his “gender-variant play,” the fact that he likes playing with dolls and dressing up as Disney princesses. Alex balks: she doesn’t want to force him into a label prematurely. (Her own parents, it’s hinted, had done a similar thing to her when she was young, and she’s still a bit resentful.) But is Alex right to be worried – or is her fear just masking her own insecurities?
Before the show began its run, I spoke on the air with Meredith Sause and Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick.
I got to see “A Kid Like Jake” twice, once with some friends at a preview and again on opening night. “Intense” was the word I heard the most, from audiences on both nights. “Jake” takes a little time to develop – there are many different sources of conflict at play, and the early scenes are there primarily just to set them up – but then tensions quickly simmer, build, bubble over, and finally explode in a pair of breathtaking back-to-back scenes.
In the process, we get an insightful look at a couple in crisis – two generally decent people who are just trying to do right by their son, but who are also very human, and very flawed. The play’s best feature is its naturalism, the degree to which Alex and Greg and Judy all talk like real people. To the extent that that’s the case, the fact that Sause and Moscater and Jahan are all Trained Actors actually works against them at first – the actors are well-rehearsed, but the characters are clearly making it up as they go, and that creates a bit of a disconnect. Once the play begins building to its climax, though, the emotion takes over, the actors let loose, and it’s a roller coaster from there on out. You’ll remember the two confrontation scenes near the end, but they’re bookended by a pair of quieter but equally powerful moments: Alex having a panic attack in a doctor’s office (wonderfully played by Sause) and a dream sequence where – well, I won’t give anything away. (Both scenes feature Jess Jones, effective in a smaller role.)
Jim Moscater and Meredith Sause. Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.
Extremely well-written by first-time playwright Daniel Pearle, “A Kid Like Jake” raises and explores a lot of difficult issues without pretending there are any easy answers. Liberal as she claims to be, Alex is squeamish when it comes to violating gender and sexuality norms, and that squeamishness clouds her judgment: she’ll gladly indulge Jake’s Cinderella fix behind closed doors, but she gets uptight whenever it’s mentioned in public. But is she wrong to want to avoid fixing labels on kids before they’re ready? “There is such a thing as a phase,” she says; we doubt her motives, but is she incorrect? Is Greg’s judgment any more trustworthy, any less biased? Is Judy’s? It’s telling that Jake himself is never seen and never heard: the play doesn’t revolve around him so much as his parents’ perception of him; and the heart of the conflict is in the fact that neither Alex, nor Greg, nor Judy, nor we in the audience, will ever know how closely the perception matches the reality. All we can do is guess.
Writing those last two sentences reminds me of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who also wrote about that gap between perception and reality: we can never know what’s really there, he argued; we can only know what our senses tell us is there. Kant, as it happened, is also the philosopher who developed this succinct rule for how to act morally: “Act in such a way that you treat (others) never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
“A Kid Like Jake” is about raising a child, it is about family, it is about gender, it is about education, it is about a lot of things – but above all this it is about people who try to reach that moral standard, without ever quite getting there. We’re all in the same boat.
“A Kid Like Jake” runs through Saturday at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/last-chance-kid-like-jake-deep-dish/
Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.
The Deep Dish Theater Company opens its 2014-15 season this Friday with Daniel Pearle’s “A Kid Like Jake,” a moving story about parents seeking a better life for their son.
Directed by Deep Dish veteran Tony Lea, “Jake” stars Meredith Sause and Jim Moscater as Alexandra and Greg, two parents trying to get their four-year-old son into a prestigious kindergarten. Jake loves dressing up like Snow White and Cinderella, and Alexandra and Greg are being encouraged to play that up in their application – and that in turn leads them to question their own beliefs.
Meredith Sause and Deep Dish artistic director Paul Frellick joined WCHL’s Aaron Keck on the air this week.
“A Kid Like Jake” just concluded a highly-acclaimed run off Broadway. It opens on Friday at Deep Dish and runs through September 20.
Deep Dish Theater is located in University Mall. For details and ticket information, visit DeepDishTheater.org.http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/direct-nyc-kid-like-jake-opens-deep-dish/
Last Thursday, at my friends’ insistence, I finally saw the movie “Thor.” It’s a big-budget action spectacle, with lots of lights and noise and CGI, but the basic premise is Shakespearean: cast out of his family by the machinations of his scheming half-brother, left broken and penniless in an alien land, our brash, headstrong hero prince (read: he’s a jerk) must regain his status as favored son and heir by proving his moral worth to his aged, tough-but-kindly father.
So you’ll understand why I was feeling a bit of déjà vu the following evening, sitting in Deep Dish Theater for their production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is A Dream” – a classic Spanish play (often likened to Shakespeare) that follows pretty much exactly the same plot.
Eat your heart out, Joseph Campbell.
Written in 1635 during the Golden Age of Spanish literature, “Life Is A Dream” is the story of Segismundo, a prince who’s been imprisoned literally from birth by his father the king. Seems he was born under a dark cloud—the stars have decreed he’ll grow up to be a tyrant—and so for the good of the country, his father has kept him locked away, ignorant of his rightful status as heir to the throne. (Why the king doesn’t just kill him outright is never entirely explained.) But as the king grows old—and his other would-be heirs begin sparring over succession—he relents: okay, he says, we’ll take Segismundo out of his cell, reinstall him as prince, and see how he handles it. If he behaves, terrific. But if he acts like a tyrant—we’ll simply drug him, lock him back up, and tell him the whole adventure was all a dream.
Meanwhile, subplots abound: a woman named Rosaura disguises herself as a man (seriously, have I mentioned Shakespeare?) to infiltrate the kingdom and take revenge on the prince Astolfo, who’s stolen her honor; the king’s closest aide discovers her secret and realizes he’s duty-bound to her too; and meanwhile Astolfo schemes to marry his cousin, the princess Estrella, to lay claim to the throne, but he may or may not still be pining for Rosaura. It’s not easy to keep up with it all: the plot is about as complex as “Hamlet,” but while that narrative unfolds slowly over three-plus hours, Calderón crams all his plot points into an hour and 45 minutes. (“I have no idea what is going on,” I overheard one audience member say during intermission.)
But as with Shakespeare, the plot isn’t as important as the underlying philosophy. Are we free to chart the course of our own lives, or are we fated to turn out a certain way? How can we tell the difference between dream and reality? Is there a difference, really? Is life itself not just as temporary and fleeting and inscrutable as a dream? And what does that tell us about how to live our lives? The intrigues of kings and princes and spurned lovers abound—there’s even a swordfight!—but the real heart of “Life Is A Dream” is in its philosophical musings, and those are handled primarily by two characters: Segismundo himself, and Rosaura’s companion Clarin, a stereotypically wise fool reminiscent of the one in “King Lear.”
Alphonse Nicholson as Segismundo and Amber Wood as Rosaura, in “Life Is A Dream.” Photo by Jonathan Young via DeepDishTheater.org.
So that’s “Life Is A Dream.”
But more importantly: how good is it?
By the time I took my seat, I was already excited about the potential. In the few minutes before the house opened, as all the playgoers milled around in the lobby, we could hear passionate shouts and the clinking of blades on the other side of the wall—just one more last-minute rehearsal, I guess, but it sounded so cool. And the set design (by Lex van Blommestein) grabs your eye as soon as you walk in: angles and windows and disheveled shelves and an ethereal backdrop that evokes mountains, oceans—attractive and forbidding and foreboding, all at once.
But the play itself takes a long time to find its footing. I still remember a production of Craig Lucas’s “Reckless” I saw in college, in which the first act was so bad I almost left at intermission but the second act was some of the best theater I’d ever seen—and I got a similar vibe from “Life Is A Dream.” It wasn’t quite that extreme this time around—the first act had its good moments, the second act had its flaws—but the difference was definitely there. The first act feels like community theater, with all that that entails: nice costumes, fine production value, and performers going through the motions of acting without really finding the emotional connection to their characters. This is not really the actors’ fault, incidentally: “Life Is A Dream” is a fine play, but some of the characters’ motivations are simply baffling, especially early on. Why, for instance, does the king choose to imprison Segismundo for life instead of simply killing him? Having chosen to imprison him, why does he then choose to give him a classical education? Having done that, why does he then choose to free him, and why does he go about it in a way that’s all but guaranteed to elicit the worst possible reaction? John Boni’s performance as Basilio the king is actually quite good (notwithstanding his New York accent), but the character himself is impossible to believe. Same goes for Amber Wood as Rosaura, Anne-Caitlin Donohue as Estrella, and Peter Battis as Clotaldo the king’s aide—all of whom deliver fine performances despite having characters who make a number of brow-furrowing life decisions.
But the second act ultimately redeems the first, and it’s all thanks to the play’s two philosophers, the wronged prince Segismundo and the wise fool Clarin—the two richest and most sympathetic characters, and (as luck or fate would have it) in Deep Dish’s production the two best acted as well. As characters, Segismundo and Clarin actually don’t figure too much in the first act—but they dominate the second, as Segismundo gets swept up in the royal intrigue and Clarin is left alone with his thoughts. And what thoughts! As Clarin, David Hudson is simultaneously hilarious and insightful and touching and tragic; unburdened by all the mounting plot points, he’s free to deliver a memorable performance.
But it’s Alphonse Nicholson’s dazzling turn as Segismundo that truly makes “Life Is A Dream” worthwhile. Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, Segismundo’s journey is a bit like Ophelia’s in reverse: he starts the play half-mad, muttering wild things to himself while life goes on around him, and the plot turns on his gradually reconnecting with sanity and society. It’s a tough part to play, and Nicholson nails it. Intense, fierce, passionate and sympathetic, he commands the stage from the moment the spotlight first falls on him—and it’s his intensity, plus Hudson’s, that finally win over the audience in the end, though it takes a while to get there. During intermission, I overheard an audience member in my row cracking jokes about the play; by the end, I heard the same person gasping (with real emotion) during Segismundo’s final speech. I felt roughly the same way.
(It’s also worth noting, as a side point, that Nicholson is the only black actor in the cast—including Boni, who plays his father. This passes without comment in the play itself—and it’s obvious from the get-go that Nicholson was simply the best actor for the part—but casting a black actor in that role also adds an additional dimension to a story about a man who begins his life in bondage, is freed in a callous and capricious manner by a king who doesn’t particularly care whether he succeeds, is cast back into bondage and is forced to regain his freedom all over again. But the play is seventeenth-century Spanish, not twentieth-century American—so the audience is left to ruminate on that for itself.)
In the end, if “Life Is A Dream” doesn’t quite reach the heights of Deep Dish’s last production, the quietly stunning “Arcadia,” it’s still worthwhile (stick around, it’ll win you over) on the strength of Nicholson’s performance as Segismundo—who never quite reaches a conclusion on whether life really is a dream, but resolves to make the best of it nonetheless. How that’s to be defined is up to you.
“Life Is A Dream” runs through May 31 at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/life-dream-deep-dish-redemption-just-time/
Sitting in the Deep Dish Theater on Friday, waiting for the start of “Arcadia,” I overheard a woman in the row in front of me.
“I looked up ‘Arcadia’ on Wikipedia before we came,” she said to her companion. “And thank God I did, because I probably wouldn’t have a clue what was going on otherwise.”
So it goes with “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping, breathtaking magnum opus about knowledge, science, history and fate, now playing at the Deep Dish through March 22. Expertly directed by Paul Frellick (DD’s artistic director) and beautifully acted by a cast of twelve, it’s an absolute must-see—but your brain better come ready to work overtime.
To understand “Arcadia,” start with Tom Stoppard. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1938, he fled the Nazis with his family and traveled to Singapore, Australia, India, and finally England—picking up a world of perspective and insight along the way. His plays—“The Real Inspector Hound,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the screenplay for “Shakespeare In Love”—are ruminations on the human condition, the nature of art, the certainty/uncertainty of knowledge, and the thin line separating reality from theater. (Are those four things all one and the same?)
And “Arcadia” is his masterwork. Set in a single room in Sidley Park, an English aristocratic estate, the play jumps back and forth in time between the present day—where three scholars are trying to unravel a historical mystery tangentially involving the poet Lord Byron—and the early 1800s, where we see the events play out as they happened. (Byron himself never appears: turns out he’s not as important to the plot as the modern-day scholars think he is.)
What’s happening? Well, in 1809, we follow a teenage girl, Thomasina Coverly (Nicole Gabriel), and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Ryan Brock). Thomasina is a genius: like any teenager, she’s curious about “carnal embrace,” but she’s also about to discover the second law of thermodynamics decades before its time. What is the second law of thermodynamics? Entropy, the inescapable process by which things irreversibly break down. What is done cannot be undone, and order necessarily decays into chaos (this is paralleled by Sidley Park’s garden, which—off-stage—is being remodeled from its Enlightenment-era neat geometry into a rough, naturalistic, Romantic-era wildness). Eventually the pair realize the ultimate implication of Thomasina’s discovery: all the stars will flicker out and the universe will settle into a lifeless equilibrium. “We’re doomed,” says Septimus.
Meanwhile, in the present day, two scholars, the hilariously pompous Bernard Nightingale (Eric Carl) and the no-nonsense Hannah Jarvis (Dorothy Recasner Brown), join forces—reluctantly, as they dislike each other—to investigate Sidley Park’s documents in order to determine whether Lord Byron killed a fellow poet in a duel. Red herrings lead them astray—Hannah, for instance, misinterprets a doodle of Thomasina’s, and Bernard wrongly assumes that Byron wrote an essay that we know was written by Septimus—but gradually, very gradually, the truth (or most of it) comes out.
Also, romantic entanglements abound. By the end of the play, Septimus has been involved or nearly involved with three different people (one of them never seen); Bernard, Hannah and Thomasina have each been involved or nearly involved with two. And there are nine other characters I haven’t even mentioned yet. There’s a lot going on here.
Eric Carl is Bernard Nightingale and Dorothy Recasner Brown is Hannah Jarvis. (Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.)
Deep Dish’s production of “Arcadia” is tremendous. The set is deceptively simple—a large table, a few chairs, three doors and some windows, that’s all, but you feel the presence of the house, the gardens, the estate, the swirl of life both on and off stage. The leading actors disappear into their characters—I loved Ryan Brock’s wry Septimus and Dorothy Recasner Brown’s Hannah, and Eric Carl steals the show as Bernard (Bernard delivering his paper in the second act is a tour de force)—but the rest of the cast shines as well: notable are David Godshall as the clueless poet Ezra Chater, Erika Edwards and Adam Sampieri as the brilliant modern-day siblings Chloe and Valentine, and Nicole Gabriel (a high-schooler!) as Thomasina. The relationships between these characters are very delicate—the earliest buds of a romance between Septimus and Thomasina, the love/hate romantic-professional partnership between Bernard and Hannah—and it’s all performed so smoothly that the difficulty doesn’t even register. “Arcadia” requires its actors to shift back and forth, often mid-scene, between virtually every imaginable stage of romance—while simultaneously ruminating on life, death, science, art, history, mathematics, landscape architecture, botany, poetry, and fate—and each of the twelve actors here is more than up to the task.
And then there’s the play itself. What are the themes? Start with the title. “Arcadia” is a reference to the Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” or “Even in paradise, there am I.” The “I” is death: looming over the play is not only Thomasina’s discovery about the eventual decay of the universe, but also our advance knowledge of Thomasina’s own death—coupled with the end of the Enlightenment, symbolized by the remodeled garden, plus the fact that all the events of 1809, so important to the characters then, will either be forgotten or misinterpreted by history, even when intelligent people are actively trying to piece them all together. (The recurring motif is fire. Pay attention to fire.) It’s all very pessimistic. Or is it? The chaos which violates order is romantic love, “carnal embrace.” The play ends with a dance that reaches across centuries. And while Thomasina argues that things done cannot be undone, Septimus counters that knowledge lost can be regained—a theory that’s apparently confirmed by our present-day scholars, who manage to rediscover the truth almost in spite of themselves.
All of which is to say: good Lord, this play is smart. My friend and I walked out of “Book of Mormon” last week remarking how intelligent a play that was—but “Arcadia” operates on a whole other level. It’s the most intelligent play I’ve ever seen. The best? Well, not quite. But definitely the smartest.
“Arcadia” is two and a half hours long and doesn’t waste a second. There’s a phenomenal amount of dense dialogue here; if there’s a flaw in the production at all, it’s that the actors will occasionally stumble over one or two of their hundreds of lines. (But that’s just probability theory.) The knock on Stoppard, if there is one, is that his plays appeal to the head without appealing to the heart—and yes, there’s an extent to which that’s true for “Arcadia.” Stoppard is writing at the top of his game; there are thirteen characters in the play (one actor plays a double role), and by my count, at least six are certifiable geniuses. Probably seven. Maybe eight.
So yes, it’s not an easy play. (Between the two, I found myself more emotionally moved by “Book of Mormon,” a play that actively goes out of its way not to strike an emotional chord.) But you ought to see “Arcadia,” not in spite of its difficulty but because of it. You ought to see this play because it’s brilliant, because it will make you think, because it will make you smarter for having seen it. Its very intelligence will move you.
Will that motion fade? Yes, eventually.
But man, it’s worth it in the meantime.
“Arcadia” runs at the Deep Dish Theater (in University Mall) through March 22. Visit this link for tickets.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/order-amidst-chaos-vice-versa-arcadia-deep-dish/
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, University Mall is holding a press conference to make an announcement. (“Reimagine University Mall,” they’re calling it.) We don’t know what they’re going to say yet, but Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt will be there along with town economic development officer Dwight Bassett and Chamber of Commerce president Aaron Nelson—so clearly they’re thinking it’s big. Dillard’s is likely going to be closing within a couple months, so the best bet is that they’ll be announcing a new anchor to replace it—and “movie theater” is the latest rumor—but we won’t know until 10:00.
In the meantime, to mark the occasion, I’m devoting my next two entries to writing about the U-Mall. Enjoy.
You know, it might just be the beer talking, but I think I’m really starting to like University Mall.
Wait, wait. Let me go back a bit…
It was Saturday. I was in my apartment and I got a call from my roommate Kit, who’s the new theater manager at Deep Dish: could I swing by with his cell phone charger? Sure. So I drove to the mall, dropped off the cord, and then proceeded to do what I always do whenever I’m in any mall at all: obsessively walk the entire thing, from one end to the other and back.
(Side note: I almost never buy anything when I’m there, but for some reason I really love malls. Whenever I’m in a new city, I’m always compelled to visit the mall; it’s how I judge metropolii.)
So. I wind up in Southern Season, a Chapel Hill institution that Kit recently overheard a guy describe as “Hillshire Farms on steroids.” (Yep, pretty accurate.) My plan was simple: walk around the store, admire all the fancy foods I can’t afford, grab a free sample of something if possible, and leave quietly without a trace.
(Oh my God, I’m Chapel Hill white trash.)
But my plan was cruelly thwarted! I wasn’t five steps into Southern Season before I was faced with an offer I couldn’t refuse, an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, a temptation I couldn’t resist:
It was Beer Extravaganza day, y’all.
Yes, Southern Season’s Beer Extravaganza: eighteen tables set up around the store, each manned by a pair of friendly brewers and local food producers, dishing and pouring out samples of their wares for anyone willing to drop eight bucks on a ticket to get in line. It was heavenly. I spent the next two hours ambling from table to table, stuffing myself with hops and goat cheese, chatting up the farmers and the brewers and eavesdropping on all the other extravaganza-goers in line with me. (Hipsters with beards, mostly.)
This is Doug from Mystery Brewing Co., which was offering two selections: an English ale called “Pickwick” and a Belgian IPA called “Fantine.” I recommend the Fantine, partly because it’s a damn good beer and partly because it’s a damn good musical.
I was buzzed by the time I got to Table Six. It was all a lovely blur from there.
By Table Nine, I’d already imbibed Duck Rabbit’s milk stout, Carolina Brewery’s winter seasonal (“Santa’s Secret”), and something from Double Barley Brewing called “Thrilla in Vanilla.” And those were just the highlights. At Table Ten I found Nikko and Kathryn of Starpoint Brewing in Carrboro, who kindly explained to me the difference between an “IPA” and a “double IPA.” IPAs are hoppy, they said. Double IPAs are—well, more hoppy. (Their double IPA was called “Duh,” which in retrospect I should’ve seen coming.)
This is Nikko and Kathryn. (The “Duh” was very good, by the way.) Starpoint Brewing doesn’t have a storefront right now, partly by choice and partly by circumstance: “We were going to open (a place) at Starpoint,” Nikko said, “but then they put a Walmart there.” There’s your impact of the Chatham Walmart on local business here in Orange, folks. (Incidentally, while you’re admiring the picture, get a load of that guy’s shirt back there. That was one heck of a t-shirt, let me tell you.)
“I’ve, uh…never heard those three words in that order before,” I said.
It was quite tasty. Apparently it wasn’t the first tray either, because as soon as the Weathervane guy set it down, folks swooped in from three different directions to grab a piece. Things were getting pretty hot and heavy at the Beer Extravaganza, y’all.
Clearly it was about time to call it an afternoon. I hit the last six tables, doubled back for one more round of Duh, and staggered out, happier and lighter in the head. There’s a lot of good local beer out there, you guys. (And a surprising amount of good goat cheese as well.)
Now. Just what was Santa’s secret?http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/a-day-at-southern-season-or-from-beer-to-eternity/
Monday at 7:00 p.m., Deep Dish Theater Company is holding a book discussion of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir “Fun Home,” in conjunction with its ongoing production of “A Queer Kiss.” The discussion (led by Evelyn Daniel) will take place at the Chapel Hill Public Library. Seriously, you should go.
Unfortunately—to my disappointment—I have to be at a different event at the exact same time, so I can’t make it. But consider this piece my contribution...
“What’s your favorite book?”
For me, that’s always been an easy one: Catch-22. After that, in no particular order, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (now back in its rightful place on the shelves in Randolph County). Those four have been my pantheon, for at least the last ten years.
But nowadays I’m not so sure.
Let me tell you about Fun Home.
Fun Home is an autobiographical memoir—written in graphic-novel form—by Alison Bechdel, otherwise best known as the author of the alternative comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (She’s also the one who popularized the “Bechdel Test” for movies: a movie passes if it includes at least one scene in which two or more women talk to each other about something other than men. The fact that so few movies do pass that test is a pretty damning indictment of pop culture.)
But Fun Home is her masterpiece. Heck, it might be humanity’s masterpiece.
Written out of chronological order, spanning years and revisiting moments again and again—kinda like Catch-22, come to think of it—Fun Home is ostensibly a coming-of-age memoir about Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania, growing up in the 1960s and 70s in an intellectual-artistic family dominated by the frosty relationship between her mother (a brilliant actress/musician) and her father (an English teacher/undertaker with a mad genius for design and a manic obsession with beauty).
It’s a fascinating bunch in itself, made quirkier by Dad’s work with the family funeral home (the “fun home”)—a closeness with death that contributes to the family’s morbidly icy demeanor.
But that’s just the setup. Here’s the twist: after years of subconscious questioning, Alison comes out as gay to her parents—only to have her father come out right back.
Then a few weeks later he’s dead. Hit by a truck. (A Sunbeam bread truck, as it happens.)
Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel assumes it was suicide. But she’s also self-aware enough to know she could be wrong. To call it suicide is to insist that there was meaning and purpose in her father’s death—which is oddly comforting, because the only alternative is to admit that the death was meaningless and absurd. But what’s comforting isn’t always what’s true. (Bechdel concedes the timing may have just been a coincidence, that her father’s death may have been unrelated to her coming out—even if it was suicide—but she’s “reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond.”)
And so she’s left to put together the jumbled pieces of a puzzle with a missing center, to make sense of a man who’s always just, just out of reach. Dad—Bruce Bechdel—was an enigma, an “old artificer” whose obsession with making the family house appear perfect mirrored his drive to make himself appear perfect. But the artifice is phony, the underlying reality never revealed. (Even when the truth does come out, it’s uncertain. We get competing stories—both stammering and elliptical—of Bruce’s first sexual experience: “He…he was molested by a farmhand when he was young,” says Alison’s mother Helen; “It was…nice,” says Bruce much later. And this is all we ever get to hear. Where is the truth?)
Where is the truth? Bechdel’s memoir is a work of postmodern existentialist genius—a narrative with no faith in objectivity, attempting to make sense of nonsense, telling the true story of a man whose life was a fiction. (Indeed Bechdel says she understands her parents best as literary figures—so Fun Home is full of literary references, from Joyce to Proust to Shakespeare.)
(I’ve personally read two books already—Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On—based solely on Bechdel’s dropping them here. I’m working my way up to Proust.)
Truth is something we claim to want—“the truth will set you free,” we always say—but truth can also be slippery (as Alison first learns when she starts writing a diary), and truth can also be inconvenient. “I am not a hero,” Bruce writes to Alison, and he’s right: he lived a lie, lashed out physically, slept with his students (or tried to), and cheated on his wife—with her knowledge, apparently, so her truth isn’t particularly convenient either. And hanging over everything is the specter of his death, the inconvenient-est truth of all, coloring every one of Alison’s childhood memories. (Sunbeam Bread is everywhere.)
But the truth does set you free, ugly as it is. “The end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth,” Bechdel writes—and as much as Fun Home pretends to be about Bruce, it’s really about Alison all along. It’s her journey we’re seeing: her coming of age, her coming out, her coming to terms with herself and emerging, as an adult, as a lesbian, and as an artist. For better or worse, Alison is her father’s daughter: from Bruce she inherits her artistic skill, her intellect, her sexuality, and perhaps most importantly her gift for restoration—taking something that’s not entirely pretty (an old house in Bruce’s case, a family history in Alison’s) and transforming it into something transcendent and beautiful and meaningful. (Today I learned that Alison’s mother Helen passed away earlier this year; I almost cried when I found out.)
We all know about dealing with inconvenient truths. Deep Dish Theater is hosting its discussion of Fun Home—you should go!—in conjunction with its current production of A Queer Kiss, another work about coming to terms with harsh realities. Both stories begin with men and boys whose fear keeps them in the closet, but it’s the characters around them—and the different ways they choose to confront the hard truths with which they’re faced—that really drive things forward. (Queer Kiss revolves around a shared kiss between two boys and the play puts the boys front and center, but I see the main characters as the parents—one overly supportive, one entirely homophobic, and two completely at a loss for what to do next.)
A Queer Kiss and Fun Home are not the same, of course. Queer Kiss is expressly concerned with making a statement about homophobia in society; Fun Home (surprisingly) doesn’t really go there. Though Alison uses hints and background details to suggest a hetero-centric society that makes life difficult for “inverts,” the Bechdels themselves run in some pretty tolerant circles. (Alison’s mother isn’t terribly comfortable with homosexuality, but we understand where she’s coming from.) Queer Kiss portrays its characters as victims of societal homophobia, but Fun Home’s truth is much more nuanced: on the couple occasions when Alison finds herself leaning toward that interpretation, she immediately pushes away. It’s part of her story, but not the whole.
But at the heart of both is that confrontation with truth—slippery, evasive, difficult, damning, and inescapable. We all have to do it. Today I went back in my Facebook page and found something I remembered posting last February: “I might as well get these three harsh truths off my chest: I kinda wish ______ would just _______, I think I may be _______ with ______, and I might have ______ed my _______.” (Like Bechdel, I’m self-aware enough to admit the inconvenient truths about myself; unlike Bechdel, I’m not brave enough to broadcast them to the world. Though I’ll Vaguebook them from time to time.) We all have sentences like this. The question is: do we deny the inconvenient truths? Do we ignore them, live our lives as if they didn’t exist? Or do we confront them, face them head-on and engage them as equals?
At the center of A Queer Kiss (now playing at Deep Dish!) are characters who try to ignore the inconvenient truths; at the center of Fun Home is a character—Alison herself—who faces them. As a result, the two works ironically trade places: Queer Kiss gives you full access to the truth but ends with uncertainty; Fun Home’s truth is shrouded in mystery and speculation, but it ends with absolute closure. I must have read Fun Home dozens of times by now, and the last page still, still makes me cry.
But I don’t want to spoil nothing. Read it for yourself, if you haven’t already. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, go ahead. I’ll wait.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/in-the-tricky-reverse-narration-fun-home/