REVIEW: Longing and Losing in Trustus's Fun Home by Alexis Stratton

 

 

There must be some other chances /

There’s a moment I’m forgetting /

Where you tell me you see me

                        --Alison, “Telephone Wire,” Fun Home

 

It can seem a little screwball at first—this Pennsylvania family with a perfect house and a demanding father, kids running around to clean up crayons and polish the silver, and a song-and-dance number performed by three kids on (and in and under) a casket. In fact, within the first few scenes of Trustus Theatre’s production of Fun Home, I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I was stepping into.

Yet, as the production progressed, it became clear that these seemingly lighthearted and sometimes darkly humorous moments were just the first steps down a complex, moving narrative of memory, loss, and coming of age.

Based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, the Tony-award-winning musical of the same name was adapted and brought to the stage in collaboration with Bechdel in 2009 by Lisa Kron, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music. It opened on Broadway in 2015 and was hailed for being the first Broadway musical to feature a lesbian protagonist.

Having read Bechdel’s Fun Home (as well as her popular comic series Dykes to Watch Out For and her second graphic memoir Are You My Mother?), I was aware of both the story of Fun Home as well as the politics surrounding it in South Carolina. In 2014, the South Carolina legislature cut funding for the College of Charleston when the university assigned Fun Home as part of its first-year reading project. The controversy resulted in months of protests, ongoing budget cuts, and rising fears regarding academic freedom among university programs and departments. (The university only had funding restored with the promise to use the money to teach the Constitution and other founding documents.)

Yet, while the controversy surrounding the memoir Fun Home grew out of its a portrayal of a young lesbian coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, at the heart of the story of both the book and the musical is Alison’s struggle to understand her father, Bruce, a controlling, emotionally abusive, closeted man who died suddenly when Alison was 19 (as we learn during the first few minutes of the production).

Directed by Chad Henderson, Trustus’s production of Fun Home brings us on a nonlinear journey through memory with adult Alison, played with a masterful mix of humor, pensiveness, and compassion by Robin Gottlieb. Accompanied by the skillful performances of an on-stage band (directed by Randy Moore) and with her narrative tied together by beautifully choreographed transitions, Gottlieb’s Alison invites us into the intimate spaces of her past where we meet her family, her first lesbian love interest, and, most notably, Alison’s younger selves, including the college-aged Medium Alison and the elementary-school-aged Small Alison.

In Trustus’s production, the most delightful moments of the story come through the performances of Small Alison and Medium Alison. As Small Alison, Clare Kerwin brims with a budding sense of self in songs like “Ring of Keys,” which details Alison’s initial recognition of an “old-school butch” in a small-town diner (“It's probably conceited to say / But I think we're alike in a certain way … / Do you feel my heart saying ‘hi’?”). And in practically every scene she appears in, Cassidy Spencer portrays Medium Alison with a comedic and endearing awkwardness, abounding with the nerves and excitement that come with coming of age—and coming out. (Most notable is Spencer’s performance of the song “Changing My Major,” in which she opines about her newfound love Joan, played with gentle confidence by LaTrell Brennan).

Yet, these lighthearted moments only serve to underscore the losses that adult Alison faces, as they are contrasted with escalating conflicts between the mercurial Bruce (deftly portrayed by Paul Kaufmann) and his wife Helen (whose strength and fragility are impressively captured by Marybeth Gorman), as well as his three kids (Clare Kerwin along with Christopher Hionis and Henry Melkomian, who play Small Alison’s brothers). Indeed, the most poignant moment of the musical emerges from this: While adult Alison acts as a sort of narrator of her own experiences throughout the production, she finally enters into one memory that leads to a heartbreaking duet (“Telephone Wire”) between Gottlieb and Kaufmann—and perhaps the most powerful performance of the whole production.

There is a sense of loss that pervades the musical—of a father’s image, of a family’s relationships. In the end, we sit with Alison in her joy and her grief, and we long with her, too—just one more moment, just one more—

It’s in that tension between memory and reality, adulthood and youth, longing and losing, that the impact of Fun Home is truly felt.

 

Alexis Stratton is a writer, editor, and film maker from Columbia, SC whose work has been published in a range of publications; they love bowties, social justice, and good art, and they think heaven must be a kind of library.

 

What: Fun Home

Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St. (www.trustus.org)

When: Thurs.-Sun. through April 14

Cost: $30 Thursdays and Sundays; $35 Fridays and Saturdays; $25 students (group discounts available)

Contact: 803-254-9732

Measure in Love – A look into a decade of Torch by Haley Sprankle

torch  

AIDS.

One little acronym with a heavy connotation.

In the early 1980s, a handful of men began experiencing a series of rare illnesses that were often diagnosed as cancer or pneumonia. The cancer was referred to as Kaposi’s sarcoma and the pneumonia was called Pneumocystis Pneumonia Carinii.

By July 1982, it was diagnosed as AIDS.

Because this traumatic illness was often linked to homosexuality or drug use, many who sought treatment faced great adversity—judgment, discrimination, and often the refusal of care.

Then came an acronym with a much more positive outlook.

PALSS.

In 1985 Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services was created in South Carolina in order to fight AIDS with the proper treatment and care. Their services were, and still are, free to those suffering from HIV/AIDS and their loved ones. They were the light in the dark for many people.

Over 25 years later, PALSS still offers support and care to those in need.

In 2005, the organization formed a benefit concert called Torch.

“I have very good friends who were and still are on the Board of Directors of Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services. It was at their request that we put together the first and all subsequent benefits. Torch, in its current form, was first performed in 2005,” Artistic Director Randy Moore says.

As Artistic Director, Moore is in charge of selecting the performers for the show.

“When I was asked to do Torch for the first time, we were in the middle of the SC Shakespeare Company’s production of Man of La Mancha in Finlay Park. Most of the original Torch cast of four men and four women were selected from that musical production. Those who weren’t were hastily recruited at the last minute to help balance out the cast. We only had a little more than two weeks to put the entire show together,” Moore remembers. “While I wanted to keep the core group for future productions, some of the original cast weren’t able to do Torch again– some for just one year, some for several. In fact, only four cast members have performed every single year. It’s very difficult to find the same talent available every single year. So, we added new performers to take the place of those who were absent. As the years progressed, some of the original performers were able to return which increased the cast size. This year, we will have every single performer who has done Torch in the past ten years and our largest cast ever- twelve people.”

Many of the performers who have graced the stage for this sentimental benefit have been seen on local stages all over Columbia, one of which is local actress and choreographer Mandy Applegate.

“Performing with this group is incomparable! I am amazed at this web of friendship and love that spans decades. Some of these people I have known for 20 years, some for closer to 10.  We frequently work together in musicals and choirs and are all friends outside of that as well,” Applegate says. “Some nights we can barely get through songs because we are either laughing, or crying, or both. We are truly a little family, and at times, our teamwork is effortless.”

This weekend, the benefit celebrates its 10th anniversary.

“Torch has grown so much since our first offering. We’ve expanded to two nights of performance, enlarged our cast and increased seating to include theatre seats as well as cabaret tables. I’m honored and humbled to have been a part of it these past ten years and to have raised so much money for such a terrific organization as PALSS. It also means a lot to have worked with these talented performers, whom you’ll never otherwise see all onstage at the same time,” Moore says.

In the end, both PALSS and Torch are all about love for one another, and how that love is used to help others through the good and the bad.

“Torch is a beautifully intimate gathering in support of PALSS and their very important work with food, drinks and song, guaranteed to warm your heart,” Applegate says. “Knowing we are raising money for PALSS, which is completely local, is truly heartwarming. The work they do is a gift to our community, and we are glad to give our service of song in support of that each year.”

Don’t miss Torch this weekend, November 7-8 at 6;30 in the Black Box Art Space at CMFA on Pulaski Street!

"See Rock City & Other Destinations" at Trustus: A Stage-cation Well Worth the Trip - a review by Arik Bjorn

Americans are suckers for a good travelogue set within the boundaries of their own white whale nation. Perhaps this is because so many of us spend most of our lives in some little corner of the vastness that is the Fruited Plain. For millions, just a trip from Manhattan to Coney Island, or from a one gas station town in North Carolina to Lookout Mountain, Georgia, represents an odyssey. And a visitor from Niagara Falls may as well be an extraterrestrial being to someone living in far-off Roswell, New Mexico. As I drove home from Trustus Theatre’s production of See Rock City and Other Destinations—tempted to put the pedal to the metal and drive north on I-95, past South of the Border and to wherever life takes me—I couldn’t think of any other significant musicals with expedition as a central theme. (Sorry, Oh! Calcutta! doesn’t count.) Yet there are so many great American travel books. My favorites include Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality and Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. But every American travel narrative, in my opinion, bows to the greatness that is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. (Charley was Steinbeck’s trusty French standard poodle.)  There are many diadem quotations in this book, but this one is a true gem: “We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. … The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”

c

And that is the message at the heart of Adam Mathias and Brad Alexander’s award-winning production (2011 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book and Outstanding Lyrics), presented in yellow-golf-sweater and tour-guide-khaki splendor by veteran director Dewey Scott-Wiley. As Scott-Wiley states: “We may embark on these journeys looking for escape…these destinations have the power to open our hearts and minds to real change.”

Steinbeck would agree.

In short, See Rock City presents separately parceled stories about average Americans pursuing humble dreams against the backdrop of popular tourist destinations: two strangers eating pie en route to a breathtaking view in the title town, Rock City; a conspiracy theorist seeking otherworldly companionship and self-validation near Area 51; a chemistry of multi-generational coupling before the normally unromantic backdrop of the Alamo; sisters celebrating ice, whales and ashes on an Alaskan cruise ship; two “d!ckheads” discovering forbidden love during a Coney Island freak show ride; and a bride-to-be barreling with nervous laughter at Niagara Falls.

The trick to nailing any stage expedition is set design. I admit I was nervous at first when I sat in my cozy Trustus seat and beheld the minimalist design that included not much more than two red diner stools. But once the curtains opened, Baxter Engle’s amazing three-screen projection design turned the entire stage into an animated album of famous American landmarks: the Space Needle, Wrigley Field, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. The projections continued throughout the show, providing the patron with a believable sensation of “being there.” In fact, during the Niagara Falls vignette, I practically felt water spraying on my chest—then realized I had spilled Cabernet on myself. (Still, though, adult beverages in the comfort of one’s seat. Go, Trustus!)

Another major success of the production was the musical trio of Randy Moore (musical director, piano), Ryan Knott (cello) and Jeremy Polley (guitar). Moore makes a spot-on choice by concentrating on strings and conjuring the spirit of Woody Guthrie and so many other American road-trip artists. In fact, halfway through the production my mind couldn’t shake sounds gone-by of Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon;"  I could practically taste the beef jerky of road trip yore.

rockcity

Thousands of hours of effort go into every stage production, and every reviewer shouts curses at his or her limited space to credit those who deserve praise. The entire See Rock City troupe is worthy of accolades for acting and song; same for all of the technical staff. Truly outstanding are the voices of Kendrick Marion as Cutter the “motherf&%#er” prep school student and Kevin Bush as Jess of the Rock City-bound jalopy. I’ve seen Matthew DeGuire in many a role on Columbia stages, but it’s well worth the price of admission just to see him as a carney in lumberjack plaid and as Grampy, channeling the voice of post-stroke Anthony Hopkins in Legends of the Fall. Vicky Saye Henderson and Kyle (happy birthday!) Collins demonstrate ballet-like romantic chemistry, and it was a pleasure to see USC bioinformatics doctoral candidate Chase Nelson prove that science and the arts can mix—just don’t tell his Ph.D. advisor that he camps out in the New Mexico desert waiting for aliens. And stealing the first act is a “green jar from Home Depot,” tossed back and forth by Henderson,  Linda Posey Collins, and Caroline Jones Weidner; what it contains, you’ll have to travel to Trustus to see.

Kevin Bush, in "See Rock City & Other Destinations" - photo by Jonathan Sharpe

See Rock City & Other Destinations is a weekend-worthy stage-cation and a wonderful theatrical reminder that setting sail for somewhere else, letting a trip “take you,” is what life is all about. Who knows what you’ll discover when you get yourself to the theater.

See Rock City & Other Destinations runs March 14-April 5 (Thursdays through Sundays) with all performances beginning at 8 p.m. with the exception of 3 p.m. matinee performances on March 23 and March 30. (There is no matinee on March 16.) Tickets are $27 for adults, $25 for military and senior, and $20 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain. Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street in the Vista. Call 254.9732 for more information or to reserve tickets. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building. To learn more about Trustus Theatre , visit www.trustus.org . The Thursday preview performance of See Rock City & Other Destinations was a “Dining with Friends” fundraiser to benefit the AIDS Benefit Foundation of South Carolina. Kudos to this group for its excellent philanthropic work!

~ Arik Bjorn

 

Jillian Owens reviews [title of show] at Trustus Theatre

Trustus Theatre has just launched their production of [title of show] , and no…that’s not a misprint.  Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell are two nobodies in New York who have only three weeks to write a musical to enter in the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival.  Unable to come up with an original work (not a show based on a book or a movie), they decided to write their musical about their experience writing their musical, along with their talented friends, Susan and Heidi. How meta!

This probably sounds like one of the most trite, gimmicky, and self-aggrandizing ideas you’ve ever heard of, right?  Don’t worry, you aren’t alone in thinking this.  Jeff, Hunter, Susan, and Heidi all have their doubts and fierce insecurities about this work-in-progress about their work-in-progress, and that’s what makes this tiny show with only four chairs and a keyboard really special.

Keep in mind: this show is a true story about four friends who played themselves in show about themselves.  Director Dewey Scott-Wiley had the unenviable task of casting this show with four real people who could fully embody the characters of four other real people who custom-made a show for themselves.  I’m happy to say, she nailed it.  Kevin Bush (Jeff), Matthew DeGuire (Hunter), Robin Gottlieb (Heidi), and Laurel Posey (Susan) are all Columbia theatre veterans whom you’ve probably seen before, and they’re all absolutely terrific in this production.  Randy Moore isn’t just the Musical Director for this show;  he also plays Larry, the oft-neglected keyboard guy who doesn’t really get any lines, and doesn’t even get to be in the publicity photos (song: “Awkward Photo Shoot”).   With this group of local all-stars, it would be hard to go wrong.  It’s important for the actors in this show to have chemistry.  We need to believe they are the tight-knit group of pals they are portraying in order to care about them.  Otherwise [title of show] would be a total bore.  As you learn more about these people, you begin to feel an odd sort of comfiness.  I really felt like these were my friends, and I found myself rooting for this little show with a big heart the entire time.

 

 

The dialog starts off as being a bit too try-hard with cliché gay and sex jokes that feel forced.  As the play (and our understanding of the characters) develops, it becomes more real—and really quite funny!  The score is cute, witty, and at times truly moving.  The lighting design by Frank Kiraly makes the most of an intentionally simple set in brilliant and clever ways.

[title of show] explores the terrifying excitement of creating something new.  In the song “Change It, Don’t Change It”, our fab four begin to doubt the quality of their work and themselves.  Is their play really good enough for Broadway?  Are they good enough?  As Susan says, "Why is it that if a stranger came up to me on a subway platform and said these things, I'd think he was a mentally ill asshole... but when the vampire in my head says it, it's the voice of reason?"

If you have ever created anything, or thought of creating anything, this show will inspire you.  It will inspire you to finish that novel that’s been languishing in your desk drawer for over a year.  It will inspire you to write that screenplay that you don’t think will be clever enough.  It will inspire you to try out for that play.  It will inspire you to stop “procrasturbating” (as Hunter says), and put something new out into the world.

~ Jillian Owens

[title of show] runs on the Trustus Main Stage through December 16th, 2012. After the New Year, the show returns on January 3rd, 2013 and runs through January 12th, 2013. Main Stage shows start at 8:00pm Thursdays through Saturdays, and Sunday matinees are at 3:00pm. Tickets are $27.00 for adults, $25.00 for military and seniors, and $20.00 for students. Half-price Student Rush-Tickets are available 15 minutes prior to curtain.

Trustus Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady St. and on Pulaski St. The Main Stage entrance is located on the Publix side of the building.

For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season information.

 

Avenue Q at Trustus Theatre - A Review

Avenue Q, the new summer show now running at Trustus Theatre, is a lively, witty, naughty musical romp through the challenges of young adulthood in the big city, told via catchy, silly, bouncy songs, performed by puppets. Well, by live actors, four of whom give voice and life to a number of Muppet-style hand puppets.  For sheer escapism and entertainment, you absolutely will not be disappointed by this triple Tony winner that ran for over six years in New York, and still thrives and prospers off-Broadway today.

With music and lyrics by creators Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q  follows the adventures of recent college grad Princeton, an archetypal naïf looking for his meaning in life... or perhaps just a job, and a cheap place to live, which he finds in the low-rent zone of Avenue Q.  Princeton is Everyman (or Everypuppet) at 22, and this theme has been explored countless times over the years, in films like How to Marry a Millionaire, musicals like How to Succeed in Business, and even the current HBO series Girls.  The show's brilliance lies in its reinvention of the coming-of-age genre, using multi-colored felt and cloth puppets, especially since the impression conveyed is that we are seeing the familiar Sesame Street characters all grown up, and having to confront the realities and responsibilities of maturity.  A disclaimer in the program makes it clear that there is no actual connection to any Jim Henson creations or properties; one imagines that at this stage, Elmo, Kermit and friends are such cultural icons that they classify as public figures, and therefore fair game for parody and satire.  Unlike the Muppets, however, the audience actually sees each performer skillfully manipulating his or her diminutive alter-ego, and so the relevant expressions and emotions are visible on the live actor's face as well.  All are attractive and talented, causing one to want to follow them on stage, but just as much attention needs to be paid to the puppets, who are the actual characters.

Performing Princeton, Kevin Bush finds just the right tone to seem sympathetic, yet still a bit of an immature tool.  A subplot revolving around an ambiguous pair of roommates (think Bert and Ernie) features Bush as Rod, an uptight and closeted yuppie banker whose nose and eye design are as phallic as his name.  Rod's denial of his sexuality and feelings for his best friend become increasingly ludicrous, culminating in a stream-of-consciousness musical fabrication about an imaginary girlfriend, from Canada, named Alberta, who lives in... ummm... Vancouver.  The ever-youthful Bush could really have played either of these roles quite believably in a "normal" play; I do wish there were a bit more distinction in their voices, especially since between the two characters, he has at least 50% of the dialogue in the show.  Still, he's a great singer and a delight to see.

Katie Leitner as Princeton's love interest, Kate Monster, is equally appealing.  Looking back over my notes, I see at least half a dozen times where she duets with Bush or joins in a group number, and I have jotted down "beautiful harmony" or "incredible voice."  Her solo "Fine Fine Line" (a melancholy reflection on the difference between lovers and friends) could easily have been part of a "serious" musical, whereas most of the other songs replicate the sing-song style of a children's show.  With no way to really change the facial expression of the hand puppets, emotions must be conveyed by adjusting their posture or position; somehow Leitner expertly manages to depict Kate Monster as a sloppy drunk, with her hair falling into her face, and the moment is one of many comic highlights.  She also gets to create Lucy the Slut, who oozes mint-julep sultriness and temptation, with a rich deep voice an octave or so lower than Kate's.  Brien Hollingsworth also displays amazing diversity in his voice characterizations as four different characters, including Trekkie Monster (addicted to porn in lieu of cookies) and Nicky, who accepts BFF Rod's sexuality long before Rod acknowledges it.  Hollingsworth and Elisabeth Smith Baker perform Nicky together, and also appear as the Bad Idea Bears, Care Bear-like apparitions who suggest things like chugging Long Island Teas the night before an important day at work, or using funds sent from the 'rents to buy some beer, and it might as well be a case, since those are better bargains.  Baker probably does the best at recreating the perky, cartoonish voices one expects, and also helps to manipulate most of the other puppet characters when their principal portrayers are busy, e.g. she performs Lucy's movements when Leitner is performing Kate. Through some skillful choreography and misdirection, rarely can one ever tell that the principal actor is doing both voices, and this also means that Baker has to know not only her own characters' lines, but most of the rest of the script too, in order to move the puppet's mouth at the right moment, in synch with the right dialogue. The other three performers accomplish this as well, but Baker is perhaps the best at turning invisible on stage, this being that rarest of times when that's a good thing.  And did I mention that Princeton and Kate engage in some graphic puppet sex?  Well, as graphic as hand puppets who only exist from the waist up can get, but that's incredibly, and hilariously, graphic.

Just like Sesame Street, there are human characters too, similarly disillusioned 20-somethings, played by G. Scott Wild, Annie Kim, and Devin Anderson.  While these characters are never fully developed, the performers are excellent, and their voices blend beautifully with the rest of the cast.  Director Chad Henderson brings the customary style that I have come to expect from his shows:  everyone is completely believable in their characters, everything moves at a lively pace, and there's never a dull moment on stage, even in transitional moments and bridging scenes.  Musical Director Randy Moore capably leads four other musicians and never once drowns out the singers.  Danny Harrington's set is ostensibly a simplistic, child-like facade of an apartment row, but utilizes striking colors and odd angles (much like his recent set for Grease at Town Theatre) to make an attractive visual statement.  Performers frequently have to make rapid exits in time to appear as another character in an upstairs window, and I'm guessing the true extent of Harrington's design can only be appreciated from backstage, as everything seems to flow quite smoothly.   There's also a multi-media component, incorporating a tv-like screen that projects video clips (created by Aaron Johnson) and little visual lessons, in that same Sesame Street style.  The excellent puppet creations are by Lyon Hill (profiled in the cover story of the current issue of Jasper - The Word on Columbia Arts) and Karri Scollon, the result of a collaboration between Trustus and the Columbia Marionette Theatre.

Trustus of course is at a crossroads, with new leadership coming in, and the ever-present challenge to stay true to their mission (edgy shows from NY that might not be done elsewhere locally) while giving the audiences what they want (which by and large is light, frothy, silly musical comedies.)  Through some happy harmonic convergence, Avenue Q  manages to do both simultaneously.  The only caveats might be:  a) however adorable the puppets may be, and however appealing the performers, the humor and language is decidedly R-rated, so consider yourself forewarned, or titillated in advance, as the case may be; and  b) the score is quite catchy and eminently hummable, but no moreso (and no less) than any good Muppet Show song.  As above, coming-of-age stories are nothing new, and have been depicted musically as recently as March's Passing Strange, which was wildly popular among most artists, musicians and theatre folks I know. For me, however, Avenue Q  is the most entertaining production I've seen at Trustus in years, and certainly the best show I've seen locally since Victor/Victoria  at Workshop some 15 months ago.  Retelling  fundamental and timeless themes using a new, unexpected, yet also familiar story-telling technique is simply a stroke of genius, and you owe it to yourself to take a trip down to Avenue Q.

Avenue Q runs through Sat. July 21st; contact the Trustus box office at 803-254-9732 for ticket information.

~ August Krickel

(Photo credit - Bonnie Boiter-Jolley)