27 April 2018

The search for self and one another

‘They are such a perfect couple!’ This is an expression we’ve all heard at some point in our lives. Less heard is the sober observation, ‘things look perfect, but who can tell what’s really going on?’ People look good in photographs. In fact they stress and strain to look good for photographs. Off-camera, things are different.  

And it’s not just about seemingly perfect relationships. Families, especially those other than one’s one, look good on film and less so for those in those same families. 

Of course there may be perfect couples and wonderful families. There could even be rare cases where there’s never been a harsh word uttered, there’s been no sorrow on account of things said and done or not said and not done. By and large, however, we are not only imperfect but art part of imperfect and even dysfunctional families. Some might say that dysfunctional is the new functional, considering how ‘normal’ is that which we are trained to be shocked at. 

‘Fun Home.’ a play by Alison Bechdel, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, speaks to this dysfunctional nature of ‘family’.  Well, on paper it is about the life of a lesbian cartoonist, Alison Bechdel and takes us through her childhood, her years as an undergraduate and to her present where she is writing her own graphic memoir at the age of 43, but not in a linear manner. It is billed as a memory play where Alison is the catalyst for the memories, observes and even participates in them.  

In these reflections presented in circuitous form, Alison takes on her relationship with her father Bruce, ‘a closeted, volatile and yet brilliant man, whose temperament and secrets define her family and her life. It is also about realization of her own sexuality. It is not only about the discovery of sexuality however; it is about identity and identification, about acceptance of self and others, the power of recall in the shaping of identity.  

‘Fun Home’ is based on Bechdel’s graphic memoir which was adapted into a musical with Lisa Kron writing the lyrics and Jeanine Tesori composing the music.  It is the first musical where a lesbian protagonist was featured. It premiered off Broadway in October 2013 directed by Sam Gold and two years later was produced at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre. The original Broadway production was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won five.  

This highly acclaimed classic will be open to Sri Lankan audiences at the Lionel Wendt from the 3rd to the 7th of May with an all-Sri Lankan cast directed by Sashane Perera with music direction by Johann Peiris. It is presented by Stagelight & Magic Inc through a special arrangement with Samuel French Inc, with Mercedes-Benz from Dimo as the Principal Sponsor and Unilever Foods as the co-sponsor.

Sashane says that it is his baby and that he’s held it for two years.  It had begun with a dinner conversation with a colleague in New York who which had prompted him to research about the musical.  

‘It is about identity and identification. I was drawn to it because of its progressive content. It is a new musical. It took a lot of work, from securing the rights to produce it here to the usual and arduous things that go with any theatre production.’

Sashane observes that all families are essentially dysfunctional and that it’s all about accepting oneself and one another.

That’s it. Childhood ends, they say, the moment you realize your parents are not perfect. True adulthood begins when you reconcile to their flaws, forgive them, recognize you are not perfect either and resolve to treat other imperfections with equanimity.  So in a sense our engagements with one another and indeed ourselves is trying to understand relationships we thought we knew.  ‘Fun Home,’ then, is a specific story but through which we are exposed to certain universal truths.  

Johann found the lyrics ‘soaked in superficial simplicity’ but with ironic and even sinister juxtapositions which help us “cut through the bullshit”.’  He, like Sashane, is proud to be working with ‘some of the most talented actors in their particular age groups’.   

The ‘talented lot’ also had things to say. Nimali Premawardhana who plays Alison said that since she had always had a singing role in previous productions and had always been the joker, this was a very different challenge. ‘It was tough because Alison is almost like a pothe gura, talking more to herself than to anyone else.’

Ayushka Nugaliyadda, who also plays Alison said it was the first time she played a lead role. ‘I was always in dance or ensemble roles.  So I was completely out of my comfort zone. The character is very unlike me, so it was interesting and it was a challenge.’

Interestingly she had first got to know about Alison when she was at school and through the now famous Becdel Test for Gender Discrimination. ‘I never thought I would end up having to play her character, which itself is amazing!’

For all the younger players, it was a fun thing. Niven Nanayakkara, 13,  who plays Christian Bechdel says acting is fun and it was great working with Sashane and making new friend. ‘At first I thought this was all bad, I didn’t know about the play, But Sashane Aiya explained and I realized this is what life is like. I’m having a lot of fun.’

He believes, however, that his family is perfect! 

Caelan Gunatilaka said that apart from all the fun, the entire process had helped him open out a bit. ‘I used to be a bit shy. I like playing the younger brother. I am required to be funny, quirky and silly. I am quite confident playing the part. My sister of course says I am made for the role because I am always acting hyper!’

Celina Randeniya finds it a more wholesome experience than any she’s so far had in theatre. ‘I’ve taken part in productions where the focus was on the main characters. The others had to wait for hours doing very little. Here, Sashane works with everyone, treating each as though he or she is playing a main role. It’s like a huge weight being lifted off of me. I feel important and grown up, I feel special, somehow. There’s a tweak of specialness coming in.’

The older players delved deeper into the text and the overall production. According to Nimaya Harris who plays the ‘Medium’ Alison, what’s different about ‘Fun Home’ is that ‘it is very, very contemporary in terms of the issues and the nature of the music.’ 

‘It doesn’t necessarily try to be a musical. It is a play about a family that happens to like music, rather than a flashy musical number. It’s a real life story about people and experiences. And the fact that we are portraying a real, live person’s experience is crazy.  Not many frills, not many effects.  Raw. Emotional.  Stripped down.  It’s not something I am used to but I am loving this, which is a very different kind of experience.’

Mario De Soyza, who plays Bruce Bechdel, broke the entire thing down to three key factors. First, the content of the story, in the context of musicals. ‘Musicals tend to have a larger-than-life presentation of essentially someone’s imagination, but this doesn’t feel like that.  It’s more like a street play. The songs complement the story. As an actor, this doubles up the challenge.
‘Secondly, the style of music is very current. It’s not a 15-20 member orchestra. We have just a few people doing the music. This had been the first time that Jeanine Tesore had composed for a musical. It’s nothing like we’ve heard before (in a musical). Like a pop concert. There’s something beautiful about the music, which is what first got to me.
‘And finally, it’s a novel story that’s being told. It’s relevant, it speaks of and to identity issues, everyone trying to find their place, doing stuff to fit in, and they hurt people along the way. It mirrors everyday life. It’s very raw in this sense, there are no frills.’

In other words, it is not just about a woman exploring a relationship she thought she knew. It’s like a extrapolation of the Senaka Batagoda’s popular song, ‘Api Kavruda’ (who are we?), where the text and the characters are constantly searching for who they (and each other) really are, just like in the song, ‘hoyanava, hoyanava, hoyanava me…api kavruda?’

According to Sashane the only place to watch ‘Fun Home’ outside the USA on these particular days would be Sri Lanka.  Of course it is not the same production. He pointed out that they had to improvise and find ways of doing without the kind of infrastructure that is ‘normal’ for Broadway productions.  It is a unique production, then, with probably a lot of quintessentially Sri Lankan touches.  

Ayushka has picked a quote from the character to post on social media: ”I want to know what's true, dig deep into who, and what, and why, and when. Until now gives way to then..."  We all want to know, but that ‘digging’ business is not easy. We get our hands, minds and hearts soiled in the process, but perhaps ‘the truth’ or its approximation is reward enough. 

And of the production itself? ‘It is a beautiful, beautiful musical.’   That would be ad enough, I believe.  

CAST: Ayushka Nugaliyadda and Namali Premawardhana (Alison), Mario De Soyza ans Vishan Gunawardena (Bruce Bechdel), Nimaya Harris and Vinuri Weerawardena (Medium Alison), Celina Randeniya and Kumaya Gunatilaka (Small Alison), Amandhi Caldera and Yanitra Kumaraguru (Helen Bechdel), Rashmi de S Wijeyeratne (Joan), Niven Nanayakkara (Christian Bechdel), Caelan Gunatilaka and Venuka Rison Joseph (John Bechdel), and Ruvin de Silva (Roy/Pete/Mark/Bobby Jeremy).

ORCHESTRA:  Charith Fernando (drums), Pathum Fernando (guitar), Isaac Smith (bass), Tehani Tissera (violin), Rochana Ramanayake (cello), Shashini Pandithasundera (keybaoards), Johann Peiris (keyboard/conductor).