Zealous attendees formed a line down Trousdale Parkway for Dorothy’s Friends Theatre Company’s production of “Fun Home” on Sunday night in USC’s signature Bovard Auditorium.
You’d never know it, but their last show took place with cardboard boxes for set pieces in a friend’s backyard.
DFTC pulled out all the stops Sunday night for one irrepressible performance of “Fun Home,” the Tony award-winning musical adapted from Alison Bechdel’s eponymous graphic novel. Hints of an amateur production still lingered throughout the two-hour musical, but the cast’s devotion to the source material and detailed understandings of their respective characters allowed for a level of nuance and sincerity unachievable by most student productions.
The tragic, though often-funny, musical interlaces Alison’s own self-discovery as a lesbian and her tumultuous relationship with her closeted gay father, Bruce, who engaged in extramarital affairs with underage men. Told through the frame of present-day Alison writing her graphic memoir, the story depicts her experience as a child in her father’s meticulously-crafted house, as well as her time spent at Oberlin College, where she began her first relationship and came out to her parents.
As a story of self-discovery, nothing is more crucial to the show’s success than 43-year-old Alison (Veronica Marks, sophomore) and her narration of the musical. Marks breathes life into the character through a striking combination of dry wit and earnestness. Their adept handling of the text is perhaps unsurprising though — they read the graphic novel seven times prior to auditioning, and another three times during the rehearsal process, according to a Q&A after Sunday night’s show.
Marks’ performance exhibits a personal narrative that is constantly under revision or review. Throughout the musical, older Alison struggles to parse out where she ends and her father begins. This tension is established within the first few minutes of the show, wherein Alison states, “caption: my dad and I were exactly alike” and almost immediately after, “caption: my dad and I were nothing alike.” Looking back, Alison struggles to understand who exactly her father was, and by extension, who she is now.
Alison’s childhood self is capably handled by junior Sophia Konat, who both embodies the innocence of the age with ease and conveys the subtleties of Alison’s inchoate sexuality. Far and away the most talented vocalist of the night, Konat reached for the upper limits of her register on “Ring of Keys,” belting with fervent joy about her inexplicable attraction to a delivery woman who present-day Alison describes as “an old-school butch.” Marks attempts to climb to a similar vocal register in “Telephone Wire” but never quite manages to pull themself up.
More self-discovery follows in the college Alison scenes, most notably in “Changing My Major,” a joyous, triumphant tune concerning her first sexual experience. This is contrasted with a conversation medium Alison and her mother, where she discovers the truth about her father’s sexuality and affairs. Sophomore Abbey Harris slips fairly seamlessly into the character of college Allison, using small, idiosyncratic hand gestures and speaking patterns to lend an authentic undercurrent of nervousness and inexperience to the character. Joan (Brittany Franke, sophomore), Alison’s college girlfriend, complements Harris’s anxiety by lending a sense of humor and candor to the couple’s burgeoning relationship.
Alison’s mother, Helen (Tali Green) also uses small differentiations in tone and body language to convey her character’s inner dialogue. Green takes on a character painfully familiar in popular culture — the supportive wife of a problematic or immoral husband. Throughout the musical, Helen’s actions alone signal unwavering support for her husband, his anger and even his affairs, yet tension hangs on Helen’s every word. When she walks into a room with a broken painting and an angry Bruce, she turns to him and asks, with habitual feigned innocence: “The painting — what happened? Did it fall?”
“She’s losing a little bit of herself every time … she knows that her husband is in the other room with a man or she’s lying to her children about what’s going on,” Green said in an interview Monday. “She has to put up this facade in her own house.”
Despite Bruce’s reprehensible actions, “Fun Home” still allows the audience to pity him at the end of the show, following his death by a car accident — a suicide according to Alison. Senior Luke Matthew Simon provided a performance that paid homage to Michael Cerveris’s original character but also carved out its own place, ultimately portraying the character as less sincere and earnest, even in the lighter moments of the show. Although Simon struck an interesting tone, he also struggled to enunciate a fair number of his lines, to the point where I was sometimes forced to rely on my own memory of the graphic novel and cast album to piece scenes together.
As an autobiographical story, “Fun Home” is inherently personal; nevertheless, DFTC’s production feels accessible both as a queer story and an exploration of how personal narratives are constructed over time. Junior Elizabeth Schuetzle, the director of the show, said in an interview Tuesday that the graphic novel may be less readily accessible given its heavier and more realistic depiction of Bruce’s abuse, but still emphasized the significance of the story’s specificity and realism.
“What they teach us in all of our theatre classes is that the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes, so leaning into the specificity and the authenticity of the characters really helped us,” Schuetzle said.
Despite the big move from backyard to Bovard, or maybe because of it, DFTC’s production of “Fun Home” Sunday night came across as a wholehearted and authentic expression of a story very dear to the cast’s hearts.
Correction: Veronica Marks was incorrectly referred to with the pronoun 'she.' We have updated the article with their preferred pronouns and apologize for the error.
"Fun Home" performed on Sunday, October 21st and was presented by Visions and Voices and Dorothy's Friends Theatre Company. For information on Visions and Voices, click here. For information on Dorothy's Friends Theatre Company, click here.