Gabrielle Werner

Fun Home at Haddonfield Plays and Players

One knows it’s going to be an interesting evening of theatre when the title refers to a funeral home. Add to that a bildungsroman with the protagonist’s family imploding in the backdrop. This premise led me to anticipate a saturnine night of theatre. Fortunately, director Bill C. Fikaris along with the cast and crew also brought out the wit in Alison Bechdel’s tragicomic biographical piece. I attended the February 3rd performance at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Fun Home is Lisa Kron’s and Jeanine Tesori’s musical stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name. It tells Ms. Bechdel’s journey of personal discovery. It chronicled her life from her upbringing in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, through her development as a cartoonist, and finally to her discovery of her lesbian sexuality. While reflecting on her life, Adult Alison (Maura Jarve) sought clues to help her understand her father. (Michael Sheldon) The latter lived as a closeted homosexual. He eventually committed suicide.

The show required three different performers to play Alison. Each one enacted the character at a different stage of her life. Gabrielle Werner played Small Alison, Courtney Bundens performed Medium Alison and Maura Jarve played Adult Alison; the character who also served as the narrator.

The story didn’t follow a linear time progression. The scenes flowed between the past and the present. Having three Alisons allowed the progressions to move seamlessly without confusing the audience.

I thought it interesting that all performers playing Alison looked alike. In one scene where Ms. Jarve and Ms. Wener shared the stage, they both maintained the same facial expressions. I credit them and Ms. Bundens for playing the same person at different stages of her life so believably. (Perhaps they’ll consider re-uniting for Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women in a few years?)

Aside from the script itself, Fun Home contained multifarious components that made it a challenging spectacle to produce. It featured a range of musical material (directed by Chris Weed), elaborate dance routines (choreographed by Amanda Frederick) and sophisticated visual projections (designed by Pat DeFusco and Gary Werner). Even with all these elements, the group still produced the show flawlessly.

The musical pieces served as a good catharsis to offset the serious nature of the story. They contained a lot of the comedy. The Bechdel children decided to write a commercial for the family funeral home. The resulting “Come to the Fun Home” sounded like an upbeat Jackson Five-esque number. Gabrielle Werner, Zach Johnson and Jake Gilman even performed it like the Motown group. In keeping with the 70s pop theme, later Vinnie DeFilippo and the company joined together for a Partridge Family encomium in the form of “Raincoat of Love.”

Ms. Frederick’s choreography made these numbers much more entertaining. As did her coordination of the entire company for the opening number “It All Comes Back.” I enjoyed the cast’s proficient execution of the number’s myriad vocal harmonies.

The drama made its way into the musical numbers as well; especially at the end. Michael Sheldon’s duet with Maura Jarve on “Telephone Wire” was powerfully moving. Mr. Sheldon’s follow-up “Edges of the World” captured the character’s anger, frustration and turmoil. Sensitive theatregoers may have their dreams haunted by Megan Knowlton Balne’s rendition of “Days and Days.”

To facilitate the scene changes Fun Home included visual images projected on to the back drop. The roadside setting passing by added realism to “Telephone Wire.” The pictures of Ms. Bechdel’s actual drawings kept the story in perspective. I found the projections (and sound) of working televisions very creative as well.

In addition to all this, Fun Home included some extraordinary performances.

Michael Sheldon portrayed the tortured Bruce. In the fall of 2016 I watched Mr. Sheldon play the Mayor of Whoville in a production of Seussical at Burlington County Footlighters. Bruce was about as antithetical to a character speaking in cheery, rhyming couplets as one can imagine.

Mr. Sheldon met this role’s challenges. He gave his character depth when he played a devoted father opposite Young Alison (Ms. Werner). He became sly and manipulative in his scenes with Mr. DiFilippo. He released the character’s anger when performing with Ms. Balne. He showed himself to be emotionally lost when singing the “Telephone Wire” number with Ms. Jarve. The anguish came through his voice when he sang “Edges of the World.”

Megan Knowton Balne played his wife, Helen. She captured the seething rage the character kept suppressing. I most enjoyed her performance opposite Ms. Bundens. While holding a glass of wine she described when she first discovered her husband’s homosexuality. It occurred during their honeymoon. She related the story like someone ready to go ballistic, but managing to keep her composure. It proved an excellent segue into the “Days and Days” number.

Courtney Bundens portrayed the most entertaining version of Ms. Bechdel in the character of Medium Alison. I enjoyed the way she found humor in the character’s nervousness. Ms. Bundens and Julie Roberts exhibited great chemistry working together as Alison and she explored their feelings for one another. It made Ms. Bundens’ performance of “Changing My Major” the pivotal moment of the show.

This production of Fun Home contained an unusual feature. Some performers may have been acting, but I’ve never seen a show with that many left-handed people in the cast. It seemed like the stage contained more southpaws than all the pitching staffs of the National League East combined.

While I don’t share the same challenges my left-handed friends face, I do think of them every time I drive a car, turn a doorknob and use a can opener.

Director Bill C. Fikaris wrote in the playbill:

On the surface, Fun Home would seem like a tragic evening of theatre. However, the beauty of this piece is that it’s incredibly uplifting and provides us with a feeling of hope by the end of Alison’s journey.

With material this intricate, it’s a credit to the cast and crew that they could convey this message of optimism in the wake of such tragedy. Fun Home closes after February 16th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Haddonfield Plays and Players

I never would’ve thought it possible to combine themes like desire, dishonesty and the use of alcohol in the same story. I guess that shows I need to get out more often. So it was ironic, really, that I discovered a play with these themes during a night out. I attended the opening night performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Bill C. Fikaris at Haddonfield Plays and Players  on May 11th.

Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece explored the dynamics between members of a Southern family. I found it interesting that Mr. Fikaris applied the ‘family’ premise to casting. The show included a pair of sisters (Shae Harris and Shani Harris), a brother and sister (Harper Carney and Quinn Carney), a father and daughter (Gary Werner and Gabrielle Werner) and a mother and son (Amanda Frederick and Wesley Frederick). I thought it nice to see a mom and her son sharing the stage over Mother’s Day weekend.

Bill Gates once said, “If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it’s your mistake.” Maggie (played by Ashley Griffiths) came to this realization herself. Then she applied it in a way Mr. Gates wouldn’t have approved. She married Brick (played by Ken Hellings): a former football player and the potential heir to Big Daddy’s fortune. With the patriarch’s health in decline, only three potential obstacles could prevent her from achieving her dream. They included Big Daddy’s other son Gooper (played by Benjamin Morris) and his wife Mae (Amanda Frederick), Maggie’s and Brick’s childlessness and Brick’s alcoholism.

Ashley Griffiths played a stellar Maggie. The show opened with inscrutability regarding the nature of hers and Brick’s relationship. Ms. Griffiths’ performance kept the audience guessing. In the opening scene at hers and Brick’s bedroom, I thought her a lovelorn vixen hungry for her husband’s attention. In the course of their conversation she expressed an interest in having a child; quite an interesting statement after ridiculing her nieces and nephews for having “no necks.” This revelation combined with her seductive charms intensified the sense of mystery.

Ms. Griffiths delivered her lines in a heavy Southern drawl. Her accent sounded more realistic than native Mississippians talked the last time I visited there. She managed to capture the dialect inherent in Williams dialog while still speaking in a way that I could understand.

The performer showed great skill in crying during the show’s climax. I won’t give away spoilers, but when one knows the reason, the action made Ms. Griffiths’ artistic choice much more impactful.

Ken Hellings brought the role of Brick to the stage. The character harbored bitter feelings regarding the death of a friend combined with resentment towards his wife. While ostensibly blaming “mendacity” as the source of his alcoholism, he drank to drown the pain. He delivered the best line in the show about imbibing until he got the “click” in his head.

Mr. Hellings delivered a superb performance pairing Brick’s anger with his alcoholism. Bringing the latter to the stage could prove quite a challenge for any thespian. From the way Williams crafted the character, Brick drank so much that he was more in danger of drowning than suffering the effects of cirrhosis. This character very well may have consumed more alcohol than Dr. Sloper in The Heiress.

This performer balanced Brick’s drinking with his rage well. I flinched when he broke one of his crutches after swinging it at his wife. Even though his character always drank, he still delivered his lines in a way I could understand. I liked how the slur in his voice gradually increased as the show progressed. I thought his acerbic, “Yes, sir” whenever Big Daddy asked him a question a nice touch.

In sports, managers always talk about having depth on the bench. The same goes for theatre. Due to unexpected circumstances, the actor slated to play Big Daddy couldn’t perform. Producer Pat DeFusco did an extraordinary job stepping in to play this crucial role. His deep, gravelly voice suited the character. Had it not been for the rare occasions when he glanced at the script, I wouldn’t have suspected him a (literal) last moment replacement.

The matriarch of the Brody Royal Family of South Jersey Community Theatre, Tami Brody, played a splendid Big Mama. The role entailed a range of emotions. Ms. Brody expressed happiness and relief to dealing with loss and her vulture-like relatives. While delivering lines like an authentic Southerner, the performer animated the character’s travails perfectly.

Benjamin Morris (as Gooper) and Amanda Frederick (as Mae) played Big Daddy’s son and daughter-in-law. They played a couple, to say it politely, very interested in their family’s financial future. Ms. Frederick and Ms. Griffiths seemed to compete as to which could play a greedy character better. As with any occurrence of friendly competition between performers, the audience ended up on the winning side.

The confrontation scene at the end of Act II made for the highlight of this show. It featured all the main characters arguing over the disposition of Big Daddy’s fortune. Big Daddy’s entrance towards the end of the scene made this dispute even more awkward. The performers took advantage of the opportunity to bring out their respective characters’ flaws; with the exceptions of Ms. Brody and Mr. DeFusco. They both demonstrated the humanity in their roles. It made for a terrific contrast.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured marvelous atmospherics. I liked the color scheme on the set designed by Bill Fikaris and constructed by Glen Funkhouser. The background and the bedsheets appeared the color of the sky during a sunset. The blue lights behind the curtains made them the same hue as a cerulean sky.

When presenting a live performance, most directors focus on appealing to senses of sight and sound. Mr. Fikaris chose to add an applicable smell. During the show, Ms. Griffiths lit a cigarette, Mr. DeFusco puffed a cigar and Mr. Werner smoked a pipe. While I abhor the scent of tobacco (well, at least since I quit smoking) it helped bring me into the story. It made me feel like I sat, to borrow a line from Hamilton, “in the room where it happens.” That’s one of the benefits of attending live theatre that a person doesn’t experience at the movies.

One incident in the show made me a little nervous. Ms. Griffiths took up a bow and arrow. She then performed a quick demonstration on how to use it. This took place just a few feet in front of me. Whenever an actor takes up a weapon in my presence I worry. Are Haddonfield Plays and Players trying to send me a message?

Performers Philip Kehoe and Emma Scherz rounded out the cast.

“Mendacity” may have been one of the show’s themes, but I’m telling the truth when I write that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was phenomenal. Maggie asked a rhetorical question about how long a feline could remain on the top of a dwelling. While that inquiry remained unanswered, the show will stay on Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage until May 26th.