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Well
by Lisa Kron
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
March 14, 2019

Lori Adams, Katy Keating
Photo by Ann K Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

 

Well is an intensely personal play. The latest production from Mustard Seed Theatre assembles a top-notch cast to tell playwright Lisa Kron’s autobiographical tale that deals with health and wellness in various different aspects, physical, emotional, and relational. Essentially a comedy, there are some serious issues tackled here as well, and though the structure does seem a bit pretentious at times, it’s the personal relationships and connections, along with the strong performances, that make this production especially memorable.

Even though Well, as it’s written, is personal in itself, the original casting made it even more so, as playwright Kron played herself, surrounded by actors playing all the other roles, which I would imagine adds to the whole “meta” aspect of the story and the way it all plays out. Here, Kron is played by the excellent Katy Keating, who does an especially admirable job inhabiting the role, although the aspect of artifice is still there in a way it isn’t when the playwright is playing herself. That’s a difference that’s inherent to the situation, though, and it’s one that all regional productions of this play are going to share. This is one of those plays that announces its theatricality in its very structure, and with Kron’s witty, insightful script and Mustard Seed’s strong cast, that concept works. Here, Kron (Keating) starts out introducing the concept of her play, only to be interrupted by her mother, Ann (Lori Adams), who has dealt with chronic illness for as long as Lisa can remember. As Lisa tells the story, tales from her childhood and young adulthood are acted out by her and the rest of cast (Alica Revé Like, Carl Overly Jr., Bob Thibault, and Leslie Wobbe), highlighting her own experiences with illness and her mother’s theories about allergies, as well as Ann’s efforts to encourage racial diversity in their Michigan community in the 1960s and 70s. The structure is spelled out at the beginning, due to Ann’s intervention, the story, Lisa’s memories, and the very concept of the play are put under further scrutiny as the purpose for the story is made clear to the audience and to Lisa herself. Ultimately, this is an examination of the playwrights relationship with her mother, and with her own perspective and how that perspective has influenced her own thoughts and attitudes about life itself.

The structure of the play can seem a little overly and obviously “deconstructed” at times, but the overall concept is still compelling, especially as staged by the excellent company at Mustard Seed and led by Keating’s remarkable performance as Lisa. The story is about her, and even as her plans start to fall apart around her, Keating’s relatable presence anchors the show. Adams, as Ann, is also excellent, and the scenes between her and Keating are especially compelling. The rest of the players play their various roles well, in addition, lending solid support to Keating and Adams, as well as to the story and concept of the play itself.

The plays deconstructional nature is reflected well in its staging, as well, and its half-realistic, half-abstract set designed by Bess Moynihan. Ann’s house is well-realized on one side, while the other half of the stage is more open and adaptable. The lighting by Michael Sullivan adds to the overall tone of the show, along with Zoe Sullivan’s sound design and Jane Sullivan’s costumes, which suit the characters well and add a touch of symbolism and connection between the characters, especially Lisa and Ann.

Overall, Well is a memorable, character-driven look at personal relationships as well as attitudes toward physical, emotional, and community health. It’s particularly well-cast, even if the autobiographical aspect is altered slightly from its original presentation. It’s especially effective as a showcase for its superb cast. This is another thoughtful, memorable production from Mustard Seed Theatre.

Katy Keating, Bob Thibault, Carl Overly Jr., Leslie Wobbe, Alica Revé Like
Photo by Ann K Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

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Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Sam Gold
The Fox Theatre
November 15, 2016

Cast of Fun Home Photo by Joan Marcus Fun Home National Tour

Cast of Fun Home
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home National Tour

Fun Home isn’t a big musical. It’s actually quite small, and not very long. It runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. Still, as short as it is, this is a powerful show. I hadn’t seen it before the national tour came to the Fox, although I had heard great things about it. I’m happy to say that it lives up to the hype.

The show is inventively structured. Based on a celebrated graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, the play introduces us to the author at three stages in her life, as adult Alison (Kate Shindle) is in the process of reflecting on her life story and writing and drawing the graphic novel. As Alison thinks and draws, we see a non-linear depiction of her life, meeting Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) as she lives with her family in a small Pennsylvania town, the daughter of Bruce (Robert Petkoff), a high school English teacher and part-time funeral director; and Helen (Susan Moniz), an actress. Bruce is obsessed with redecorating his family’s grand old house, as well as keeping up the appearance of the perfect happy family. We also get to meet Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), who starts college and experiences many personal discoveries, from her own identity as a lesbian  and her new relationship with girlfriend Joan (Karen Eilbacher), to continued revelations about her father, who is gay but closeted. As Alison learns about life and learns to make her own way, Bruce bristles against the changes in the world and the expectations of others, leading to despair as the older Alison reflects, ponders, and wonders how things could have turned out differently as she uses her art as a cartoonist as a vehicle for her own quest for answers.  The structure is brilliant, as the various stories intertwine and interact, and there’s a strong score to punctuate the drama.

This is an intensely dramatic play, no question, but it also has a great deal of humor, from adult Alison’s wry commentary on her previous selves’ lives as she writes about them, to Medium Alison’s enthusiastic celebration of her feelings for Joan, to Small Alison’s making a hilarious commercial with her brothers (Pierson Salvador as Christian, Lennon Nate Hammond as John) about the funeral home, complete with song and dance. In the midst of this though, is a family tragedy, of a man who cares so much about appearances and feels bound by society’s expectations of him, and of his wife who knows what’s going on and feels increasingly neglected and powerless, to the initially clueless Alison who doesn’t know what’s happening with her father until she’s in college, and the older Alison who still tries to come to terms with the tragic consequences of her father’s actions. It’s a brilliantly written, insightful show full of excellent songs and lucid commentary on the subject of personal growth and development of identity as well as family dynamics and the constant pressure for the parents to keep up appearances, and for the kids, as they grow up, to search for their own authenticity.

There isn’t a list of songs in the program, and I think that’s because the songs are blended so seamlessly in with the rest of the dialogue. This isn’t a sung-through show, but there’s a lot of music packed into that 90 minutes, and it’s excellent. The performers are all top-notch, as well, led by the three Alisons—the sometimes reflective, sometimes sarcastic Shindle as adult Alison, the wide-eyed, enthusiastic Corrigan as Medium Alison, and the thoughtful, playful, brash Baldacchino as Small Alison. Petkoff is also superb as the conflicted Bruce, who struggles to come to terms with his own feelings and reality in the midst of his efforts to construct and protect his own existence. Moniz is also strong as the neglected, caring but increasingly angry Helen, and there are also fine performances from Salvador and Hammond as Christian and John, by Eilbacher as Medium Alison’s outgoing girlfriend Joan, and by Robert Hager as a variety of characters in Bruce’s life.

The technical elements of the show work together well to help maintain the comic and dramatic atmosphere of this production. The Bechdels’ meticulously well-appointed house, adult Alison’s apartment/studio and Medium Alison’s college dorm room and campus spaces, the family’s “Fun Home” (their nickname for the funeral home) and more are well represented in David Zinn’s versatile set. Zinn also designed the costumes, which are also superb, fitting the various characters as well as the changing time periods well. Ben Stanton’s lighting is also remarkable, helping to maintain or shift the tone of scenes as needed and to enhance the overall mood of the production.

Fun Home is a short musical, but there’s a whole lot to see and experience in this one act show. I haven’t read the graphic novel on which it is based, but now I want to. This is a fascinating show, well-crafted in all areas and incredibly well performed. It’s a story of an artist, of a family, and of personal discovery and the struggle for authenticity amid outside expectations as well as self-perception.  It’s an impressive, highly emotional show and I’m glad I was able to see it.  There’s still time to check it out at the Fox. I highly recommend it.

Kate Shindle, Robert Petkoff Photo by Joan Marcus Fun Home National Tour

Kate Shindle, Robert Petkoff
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home National Tour

The national tour of Fun Home is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 27, 2016.

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