Amelia Barr has been browsing stores like Alison Bechdel. Which mug would the cartoonist buy, which jeans? She has been doodling more and has recreated Bechdel’s drafting table. This is in addition to watching videos, reading books, listening to podcasts featuring the artist behind “Fun Home,” a memoir-turned-musical.
Barr is one of three actors who will play Bechdel at varying ages in Renegade Theater Company’s production, which opens Friday at Teatro Zuccone.
“I really kind of feel like 24-7 Alison Bechdel,” said Barr, a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth’s theater program. “Since finding out about the role, I’ve gotten a hold of whatever I could find about her. I wanted to see what made her 'her.' I’ve watched how she moved, her mannerisms, how she talked.”
Barr is the oldest Alison — the one who goes back and reconsiders a life spent growing up in the family funeral home, a work-in-constant-progress, with a father who was keeping big secrets. Laney Goei, a recent Duluth East graduate, is college-age Alison, who is in a period of discovery. Reagan Kern, who is going into seventh grade at Lincoln Park Middle School, is young Alison and is also seen in flashbacks.
The trio of actors has been dining together and meeting before rehearsals to unwrap Alison and fine-tune the ticks that will connect them as one person in different life phases. They will stand with their toes turned slightly inward, they decided, and they will have similar gestures. Earlier this week, Reagan reminded her co-Alisons about Bechdel’s obsessive compulsive disorder.
“Which makes so much sense,” said Barr. “She has a certain way she likes things.”
‘Fun Home’ then, now
The New York Times called Bechdel’s graphic memoir “a slim yet Proustian graphic memoir” and “a pioneering work” when “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” was published in 2006. It’s a coming of age story with dark corners. Her father, Bruce Bechdel, is a high school teacher-funeral director and a detail-guy who is always upgrading the old family funeral home with a lush new garden or a controversial chandelier. Soon after Bechdel sends a letter from college telling her parents she is gay, and soon after Bechdel’s mother asks for a divorce, her father is hit by a truck and dies. They will never know-know if it was an accident or suicide, but Bechdel has her truth. Meanwhile, it turns out that her father was gay and had slept with his students and other young men.
The memoir was adapted for theater by Lisa Kron, Jeanine Tesori and Bechdel. It opened off-Broadway in 2013 and then landed at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2015. New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley described it as “the sort of classic mystery that keeps grown-ups in analysis for decades: who are these strange people who made me?”
The national tour played the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis in 2016, but it hasn’t yet popped up on community theater schedules in this region.
Peter Froehlingsdorf pitched the play to Renegade Theater Company last summer. “I’d fallen in love with the story and the music,” he said.
He was undeterred by the fact that the rights, held by Samuel French, were restricted.
“I said, ‘The rights are always available,’” he recalled telling the company’s director, Mary Fox. “I always push the envelope and call companies. Companies are always willing to listen to you, at least.”
Boom. It worked.
Renegade Theater Company is the first non-equity theater in the region to get the rights to produce the show, which won a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015.
All the Alisons
When it came to casting Alison, Froehlingsdorf said he started with the youngest. Reagan, 12, was in the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “The Music Man” at the NorShor Theatre last summer. She was drawn to the show because of its message.
“The message in the show is to be you and not be afraid to be you,” she said. “As a middle-schooler, that’s important to me. That role connected to me a little bit.”
Then came Goei, who is in her last hometown theater hurrah before she goes to the University of Utah to study musical theater.
She saw a production of “Fun Home” while visiting Boston in November.
“I was so in love with it,” she said. “It’s so raw. It’s unlike any theater I’ve ever done before — or theater that most people do. It’s the story that hits everyone in a different way.”
For Barr, too, the switch to a nonfiction role has been interesting. She said she might be best known locally for playing Ariel in UMD’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” In some ways, this is easier, she said. She’s just had to study what’s available rather than interpreting a character.
Barr had just returned from eight months aboard a Norwegian cruise line, where she performed music from “Mamma Mia!” and “Cabaret,” when she got the call from Froehlingsdorf.
She made a mad-dash to Duluth.
Barr has found Bechdel to be an admirable character, which starts with her sun-up to sun-down work ethic. And:
“I admire her willingness to look into her past, even though it was so hard,” she said. “She’s an archaeologist of her own life, digging up a past that she was not too fond of.”
Froehlingsdorf said this show is unlike any other he has been involved with in his two-plus decades of theater.
"We are working hard, and we leave feeling emotionally gutted, but it feels good," he said.
If you go
What: Renegade Theater Company's production of "Fun Home"
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 24
Where: Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St.