At Na­tional, ‘Fun Home’ con­fronts fam­ily se­crets

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPRING ARTS PREVIEW | THEATER - Peter Marks peter.marks@wash­

In the com­ing months, many eyes will be look­ing with hopes raised to the new ten­ant on Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue.

I’m re­fer­ring, of course, to “Fun Home.”

The mu­si­cal by Jea­nine Te­sori and Lisa Kron, which col­lected five Tony Awards in 2015, in­clud­ing best mu­si­cal, set­tles into Wash­ing­ton this spring at the Na­tional The­atre, just a few blocks down Penn­syl­va­nia from the White House. In a the­ater sea­son packed with promis­ing ven­tures, this one, run­ning from April 18 to May 13, should find a slot high on your pri­or­ity list.

The au­gust Na­tional, once an es­sen­tial stop for im­por­tant shows on their way to and from Broad­way, only rarely plays that role any­more. The last time was al­most four years ago, when it housed the pre-Broad­way try­out of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s “If/Then,” star­ring Id­ina Men­zel. Al­though tour­ing shows still cy­cle through the build­ing, “Fun Home” is a mu­si­cal of a rarer level of distinc­tion. In both style and con­tent, it ac­com­plishes that in­cred­i­bly for­mi­da­ble task: launch­ing a piece of mu­si­cal the­ater off to­ward new, imag­i­na­tive hori­zons.

Based on a graphic mem­oir by MacArthur “ge­nius grant” win­ner Ali­son Bechdel, it is a funny and dis­turb­ing ac­count of grow­ing up gay in a fam­ily that runs a funeral home — thus the ti­tle. Ali­son, played at var­i­ous ages by three ac­tresses, not only must come to terms with her iden­tity, but must also con­tend with the se­crets in her fam­ily — most no­tably, a deeply un­happy fa­ther who is him­self a clos­eted gay man. (For the road com­pany of “Fun Home,” di­rected as in New York by Sam Gold, Kate Shin­dle plays the adult Ali­son; Robert Petkoff por­trays her fa­ther, Bruce; and Su­san Moniz, her mother, He­len.)

The ma­te­rial, deeply per­sonal and tinged with sad­ness, is nev­er­the­less made buoy­ant by Kron and Te­sori’s heart­break­ing score, filled with vi­va­cious, com­ing-of-age melodies and more plain­tive bal­lads of sel­f­rev­e­la­tion. It’s a mu­si­cal of sur­pris­ing rich­ness, the kind that en­velops you in its glow­ing com­pas­sion and know­ing hu­mor.

Also worth not­ing

Fas­ci­nat­ing twists on es­tab­lished forms also char­ac­ter­ize the com­ing months’ note­wor­thy plays. One of these is the new­fan­gled cheek­i­ness that suf­fuses play­wright Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III,” which be­gins at Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany on Feb. 7. This fan­ta­sia of a play, di­rected by Stu­dio The­atre’s David Muse, stars Robert Joy as the newly crowned suc­ces­sor to a re­cently de­ceased Queen El­iz­a­beth II. And it asks some pointed ques­tions about the rel­e­vance of a monar­chy at this late date.

A clas­si­cal the­ater com­pany is the best pos­si­ble host for this play, which got some­thing of a puz­zled re­sponse from Broad­way the­ater­go­ers. Mod­eled on Shake­speare’s his­tory plays — and spo­ken, yes, in El­iz­a­bethan-era me­ter — “King Charles III” is the sort of brac­ingly in­tel­lec­tual en­ter­tain­ment best en­joyed by those with some ex­pe­ri­ence of, say, “Richard II” or “Henry V.” The ways in which Bartlett uses the con­ven­tions of Shake­speare are just that sharp. And with its satir­i­cal portraits of con­tem­po­rary roy­als (even the late Princess Diana makes a spec­tral ap­pear­ance), there is enough juicy in­trigue to keep any die-hard Wind­sor-watcher glued to their seat.

At Stu­dio The­atre, the spring brings an even more dar­ing gam­bit. A re­vival of An­ton Chekhov’s peer­less “Three Sis­ters” is be­ing paired with a world-pre­miere play by Aaron Pos­ner that dances, in metathe­atri­cally Stop­par­dian fash­ion, with the clas­sics. “No Sis­ters” is its ti­tle, and the con­ceit — at least on pa­per — sounds coolly of the mo­ment. Al­though “Three Sis­ters,” di­rected by Jack­son Gay, be­gins per­for­mances a week ear­lier, the two works will run con­cur­rently once “No Sis­ters” opens March 16.

“Three Sis­ters” will be per­formed in the ground-floor Mead The­atre and “No Sis­ters,” di­rected by Pos­ner him­self, a floor above in the Mil­ton The­atre. Seven of the sup­port­ing char­ac­ters in “Three Sis­ters” will use a con­cealed stair­way be­tween the two spa­ces to exit “Three Sis­ters” and en­ter “No Sis­ters.”

It seems silly to see one and not the other, but Pos­ner is no novice when it comes to Chekhov riffs. His pre­vi­ous adap­ta­tions of “Un­cle Vanya” and, es­pe­cially, “The Seag­ull” have drawn pos­i­tive, even ad­mir­ing re­cep­tions. If “No Sis­ters” can suc­cess­fully ex­pose new lay­ers of re­gret and long­ing in a the­atri­cal realm we’ve come to know as Chekho­vian, that world might hence­forth have to be re­ferred to as Pos­ne­r­ian, too.


Alessan­dra Bal­dacchino as young Ali­son Bechdel and Robert Petkoff as her fa­ther, Bruce, in “Fun Home,” which makes its pre­miere in Wash­ing­ton in April. The 2015 Tony Award win­ner for best mu­si­cal adapts Bechdel’s graphic novel to a funny, un­set­tling and oc­ca­sion­ally heart­break­ing story and score.

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