By Nan Lincoln
Special to The Ellsworth American
BLUE HILL — The New Surry Theatre is launching its 2019-20 performance season with something new and different and, judging by a rehearsal last Sunday, quite special.
“Fun Home” the Tony Award-winning musical based on American cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir, opens Friday, Nov. 8, for a three-weekend run at the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater.
Director Lori Sitzabee has not only chosen a work that is provocative, at times troubling at other times, as the title suggests, fun; she is also presenting it in an unusual way for this theater troupe, which traditionally confines most of its dramatic fare to the small Town Hall stage, with occasional spillovers into the audience.
Here Sitzabee has turned that formula upside down, with most of the action taking place in the round on the theater floor, surrounded by the audience, with occasional, uh, spill-ups onto the stage.
“I wanted to make this a more intimate experience for the audience,” Sitzabee explains. She says as the new-ish artistic director of NST who took over the reins last year from retiring Bill Raiten, she is trying a lot of new things.
“I’m excited to be branching out, bringing new works,” she says, “that focus on relationships, and how they affect our lives.
This play which explores the different ways in which a father and daughter navigate the territory of their individual sexuality, feels especially relevant to her.
“As a lesbian myself,” says Sitzabee, “Fun Home” has a personal impact on me.”
Because of this, she acknowledges that it is sometimes a challenge for her as a director not to get too emotionally involved in the story.
“From time to time I have to step back and tell myself it’s not my story but Alison Bechdel’s. Fortunately, Alison is a real person and still with us, so I’ve been able to do considerable research on her and her family life, which has helped me considerably.”
Alison Bechdel is a gay graphic novelist, who grew up with her two brothers in what from outward appearances seemed like an unremarkable family of five. Her family was in the funeral home business.
But there are secrets and lies that throw the dynamic of her parents’ marriage out of whack as well as her father’s relationship with his children, especially his young daughter who is trying to figure out who she is and is frightened by what she is discovering.
In the play, Alison is played at three different ages by three actors. Bixby Hawkins at age 9, Magnolia Vandiver as a teenager and as an adult by Vanessa Hawkins, who happens to be Bixby’s mom and also the mom of Ripley Hawkins who, along with Gus Schultz plays one of Alison’s brothers.
Make no mistake about it, although some of these actors are still in grade school, they already have a great deal of stage experience, in school and/or through other NST plays and as acting students of Raiten.
As they run through the first act, in which we first meet the Bechdel family, this experience is very apparent in their projection, their stage presence and perhaps most importantly their ability to take direction.
At one point as the three children are rehearsing a song and dance, Director Sitzabee stops the action with an exasperated “What is this? You’re supposed to be having fun! Where’s the energy?”
The three young actors listen, take it in without excuse or comment, and when they run through it again, they step it up considerably making it clear that this number is destined to become a highlight of the show.
At another interlude, when the adult Alison is on stage with her younger selves, Sitzabee reminds them of a lesson from acting class.
“Remember how you learned not to pay attention or even look toward a ringing phone?” she says. “Well, that’s what you need to do here. You do not see or hear these other Alisons even though they are ringing pretty loudly.”
This is not an easy show, no matter what the age and performers’ theater experience. At times, it is reminiscent of a three-ring circus, with groups of characters separated in space — and even time — at certain moments, and yet required to blend their voices in a cohesive song. At this point it is still a little rough around the edges, but when it all works it is simply splendid.
When Alison’s mom, Helen (the excellent Kate Hall), sings her etude of frustration and confusion as her husband (also excellent, Randall Simons) seduces a young man in another room it is, for sure, gonna break a few hearts.
“Fun Home” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 8-9, 15-16, 16, 22 and 23 at the Blue Hill Town Hall Theater. Matinee shows are at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10 and Nov. 17. To reserve seats, call 200-4720
and visit newsurrytheatre.org.