The Thrust: These Tragi-Comedies Look at What Remains
On stage now in the South Sound are two humor-laced shows with some dark, almost mystical, elements. The musical Fun Home, at Harlequin Productions in Olympia, and the stage sitcom Java Tacoma: To Bean or Not to Bean, from Tacoma’s Dukesbay Productions, both close this weekend.
There are a lot of humorous bits of Fun Home — it’s narrated by a cartoonist, after all — but it’d be a misnomer to call this musical about a family’s behind-the-scenes tragedies a comedy.
Similarly, the final episode of Java Tacoma, Dukesbay Productions’ long-running original sitcom, looks at double-crossing, family abandonment, and death. But it does have a feel-good ending.
Both do, really.
* * *
For Alison Bechdel, the happy ending in her musical memoir Fun Home is that she grew up into herself — the acclaimed cartoonist of the groundbreaking lesbian-centered comic series Dykes to Watch Out For, followed by her illustrated autobiographical works. (The multiple-Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home is based on Bechdel’s graphic memoir of the same name.) But that road was filled with a lot of pain, as Fun Home graphically lays out.
At the center of the reveals in Fun Home: Bechdel’s dad was gay, but a self-denying, self-loathing, in-the-shadows sort, and you have to wonder if that’s why she took the opposite approach; with her comic strip premiering in 1983, Bechdel was blaringly, name-in-the-bylines “out” in a time where that was far from the norm. And her dad’s mood swings are so pronounced, at least in the show’s portrayal, it seems likely there were some undiagnosed mental health issues on top of that self-loathing. That combination made everything an adventure — albeit a precarious, walking-on-eggshells sort of one — for the kids, and it made life hell for the mom. While she fretted at home about what he was up to and what he’d bring home next, he took on expensive home renovation projects in order to get close to men who caught his eye, and spent the rest of the time leering at his high school students or lording over the family business, a funeral home the family referred to among themselves as “the fun home.” Bechdel’s dad killed himself while she was away at Oberlin College.
For Bechdel, what remained were questions. Key among them, a wide open-ended, What happened, Dad? And whether, as people, they were very much alike or not alike at all. Fun Home the musical is Bechdel’s quest to discover, or at least come to terms with, the unknowable.
Fun Home was a mega-hit on Broadway after its 2015 Tony wins, and toured a lot thereafter; I caught the touring show twice at The 5th Avenue Theatre some years back. It’s an incredible tragedy-with-an-upswing tale, and the musical’s presentation of it — with Bechdel looking back with a cartoonist’s eye, trying to figure out how to tell her family’s story — is captivating.
All the story’s shifts can make for a muddled stage, too. In the present production at Harlequin, various elements ride a blurry boundary of working and disjointed. Among them: too many set changes with roll-away pieces that get distracting with little payoff; volume issues where the band drowned out the singers for the first few songs; an odd totally silent interlude where a song is performed in ASL but little of the rest of the show is; lighting that never really illuminated anyone (which could have been intentional, since it’s a dark story, but would be an odd choice under a direct spotlight); an overwhelming amount of spike tape that no one seemed to be using.
But the story comes through, and it’s told by an overall strong cast, which makes all the difference. The hollow gaze of Renée Hewitt as Helen, Bechdel’s mom, tells the pain of abandonment better than any words can. It bolsters the difficulty of Bechdel’s quest to make sense of a life marked by early death.
Music by Jeanine Tesori; book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Directed by Michael Jenkinson. Featuring Cassi Q Kohl (grown-up Alison), Heather Matthews (who performed in the show I saw, as understudy for grown-up Alison), Eleise Moore (medium Alison), Zoey Matthews (small Alison), Galloway Stevens (Bruce Bechdel), Renée Hewitt (Helen Bechdel), Michelle Mary Schaefer (Joan), Christian Bolduc (various characters), Lane Nixon (Christian Bechdel), Wade Mutchler (John Bechdel), and Bruce Haasl (understudy for Bruce Bechdel and others).
* * *
Meanwhile, Dukesbay Productions’ Java Tacoma is a small-batch, organically grown sitcom, complete with its own catchy theme song. Set and performed in an artsy old building on the outskirts of downtown Tacoma, this is a story told among friends who convene in a coffee shop called Perky’s, which thrives on a small assortment of regulars. But it’s quickly clear that the drama stretches beyond the little shop’s walls.
This is the eighth and final episode of the years-running serial: a riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, punnily titled To Bean or Not to Bean. Double-crossing is in the air, and while they all mourn the passing of a beloved father, he’s seemingly guiding them around the treacherous traps laid by an estranged family member who’s very much alive.
To Bean centers on the friends, but it’s just as much a tale of two fathers. Cash-strapped building owner Darren is desperate for his father to change his ways as a thieving, conniving real estate tycoon (who looks an awful lot like a past president), who’s clearly loathe to accept his son’s proclivity for dressing in drag throughout his shift. Against his father’s history of scorn and derision, Darren’s moved on from holding out hope for approval. But the elder just can’t stay away, either; his version of success requires mocking others beneath them, which in turn is dependent on him stringing them along long enough that they’ll stick around.
In contrast, Bert — the recently deceased, much-beloved shop owner and family man — is seen only as an apparition. He’s remembered fondly by his family and friends, and appears from beyond the grave to guide them in their times of biggest need. His is the sort of spirit you might wish everyone had a bit of inside of them.
Well … maybe there’s a way …
Java Tacoma is a lovely folksy comedy that holds a bit of suspense, some of which is quickly apparent and some of which holds back until the end. The core characters are so good-hearted, you can’t help but want the best for them. Happily, Perky’s serves up a nice big slice of just deserts.
Written by Aya Hashiguchi (Dukesbay co-founder and producer); directed by Randy Clark (Dukesbay co-founder and producer). Featuring Joseph Grant (Alex), Aya Hashiguchi (Linda), Roger Iverson (Peter), Susan Kaeka (Jeri), Nate Lovitt (Rudy), Laurie Sifford (Kate), Jax V.C. (Anna), Jeffery Weaver (Darren), and Malcolm J. West (Bert). Theme song composed by Allan Loucks.
* * *
With little overlap in styles of delivery, Fun Home and Java Tacoma aren’t obvious kin. But both are stirring tragi-comedies that delve into betrayal, fatherhood, and what’s left after death.
Fun Home runs through 10/29 at Harlequin Productions in downtown Olympia. Tickets are $46, here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral, accessible restroom near the entrance to house left. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility: half-price rush tickets are available for all performances, 30 minutes before show time; see info here.
Java Tacoma: To Bean or Not to Bean runs through 10/30 at the Dukesbay Theater in Tacoma. Tickets are $15, here. Accessibility notes: bathrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is up significant stairs and has no elevator access.
For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.