Fefu and Her Friends
María Irene Fornés
American Conservatory Theater
It is New England in the mid 1930s; flowers are blooming, birds are singing; and Fefu has invited seven of her female, educator friends to come to her lovely countryside estate to practice their talks for an upcoming event – a reunion of former classmates, some of whom have not seen each other in years. As they enter in a wide array of fashions of the day, we too soon discover that we are among the guests in the idyllic setting – eaves droppers on conversations large and small, silly and serious, comforting and confrontational. As the day progresses, we will wander in divided groups the back halls and stairways of American Conservatory Theater’s Strand to explore Fefu’s house and garden, gathering along the way glimpses of intimate chats, poetry recitations, and disturbing dreams that playwright María Irene Fornés has embedded in her 1977 Fefu and Her Friends that many a scholar has since come to see as a modern classic.
Consider that in 1977 rare it was for a play to be staged with only women – especially women who are sharing openly their theories, jokes, biases, dreams, and fears with no man around to judge, validate, or dismiss them. 1977 was a time when the women’s liberation movement was in its second decade of efforts to secure economic, social, and psychological freedom for women. Fornés’ play is at its heart a heralding of feminist rights to think, to dream, to contradict, and to say aloud even the most objectionable, the most absurd, the most prohibited, and certainly the most profound ideas with no fear of male censorship. That the play is set in the 1930s is doubly powerful – an era when to gather as a group of women and to have the freedom of thought and speech among themselves for even one day would surely have been rare for most, if not all of them.
But that is not to say men are totally absent from Fefu’s gathering. Three, including Fefu’s husband, are viewed by the guests from time to time through invisible windows between us and the women – viewed almost as if they were looking at animals in a zoo. Males are the topics of many conversations, often spoken of with envy and in admiration for many of their qualities that in the world of these women are not seen as possible for women to have. There are other qualities the women attribute to their own sex that they see as inherently weak and undesirable. The women themselves are not immune from the sexual biases of their society; but the more we hear, the more we realize that they also are the victims of the control, the unwanted seduction, and the ridicule of the male half of the world – themes certainly the playwright must have seen in her world of the late ‘70s and themes that unfortunately still ring true today.
With no men as a part of this reunion, Fefu herself takes on many of the missing male roles and masculine characteristics; and she clearly relishes doing so as she tries to shake up the meeker among her guests, perhaps to rethink their views of themselves. Catherine Castellanos clearly thrives in her role as Fefu, declaring authoritatively with a mixture of wicked glee and purposeful shock statements like “My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are;’ “I still like men better than women;” and “Men have natural strength, women have to find their strength, and when they do find it, it comes forth with bitterness and it’s erratic.”
There is often a twinkle in Fefu’s eyes but also an attitude of ‘take it or not’ about what she is saying. She is OK with another’s rejection of her ideas. For her, they are fodder for fostering communion and conversation among these gathered friends. “I like exciting ideas; they give me energy,” she says with vigor, with she and the playwright challenging those listening perhaps to break out of the boundaries male society has placed them in order to think and say the outlandish.
Fefu is funny, fearless, and even frightful (at least to some). But Catherine Castellanos also shows us more than once a motherly, caring side that is a bit surprising to see from her but is clearly genuine – a balancing measure to prove that Fefu is not just an act. And in the end, her Fefu bares her own soul to expose her vulnerable side, admitting about her husband, “I need him,” completing the actor’s and the playwright’s portrayal of a woman who knows how to control and to lead, how to show sensitivity when others are hurting, and how to recognize and accept her own needs for love. The role of Fefu and the portrayal by Catherine Castellanos are more than enough reason to invite oneself to Fefu’s house as a ‘guest’ via a ticket to ACT’s stellar production.
But wait, there are many additional reasons to visit Fefu. First, leaving the mainstage living room to explore in nine-minute segments other settings is quite the adventure. Traversing narrow, period-decorated hall- and stairways becomes a tour of Art Deco décor and 1930s memorabilia thanks to the creative artistry of Tanya Orellana (scenic designer) and Janice Gartin (props manager). Accompanying us along the way is a song soundtrack of women’s hits covering many decades from the ‘30s onward (thanks to Jake Rodriguez’s impressive sound design), with Sarita Fellows’ costumes adding a parade of the various fashions of the times to match the varied personalities scattered throughout Fefu’s house.
And then there are the guests themselves – each unique, interesting, and enlightening. Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) is a friend who seems to understand that much of Fefu’s bombastic blasting – including her love of occasionally firing a shotgun full of blanks toward her husband – is just the joy and strength of who Fefu is. A friend Cindy brings to join the group for this outing, Christina (Sarita Ocón) is not quite so sure, finding solace from Fefu’s eccentrics by sucking on ice with a drop of whiskey on top. We visit the two or them as they read and chat in the study, during which Cindy relates a nightmare that certainly has parallels to what Me Too women have experienced today in real life.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is the often helpful and good-listening friend, Sue, who politely while stirring soup in the kitchen contemplates the methodical construction of the rather serious-minded Paula (Stacy Ross) as she explains the developmental stages of love affairs (which Paula deems last seven years, three months). Paula is both mildly excited and clearly perplexed that the gathering includes a reunion with a fling from the long past, Cecelia (Marga Gomez); and their interactions become a bit of cat-and-mouse as Cecelia apparently wants to reignite old flames on a fire that Paula views died out long ago.
Lisa Anne Porter’s portrayal of Julia is one of the evening’s most arresting performances, with Julia being wheelchair bound from a hunting accident where a deer and she both fell at the same time – the deer dead from a bullet and she from fainting, resulting in a bump on the head and debilitating petit mal. At her bedside during our tour, we witness an unsettling, frightful hallucination of Julia that provides more insights into the dominating male world that the playwright seems to be reminding us exists more than in just nightmares. As the evening progresses, Lisa Anne Porter’s Julia provides us with a disconcerting, climatic showdown with Catherine Castellanos’ Fefu that proves the star power of both actors.
Beyond the one-liners that Fefu loves to pitch into the mix just to see the reactions of others, guest Emma is the evening’s key source of great joy for life and the love of humor. In the garden, she almost shocks even Fefu with her opening question of “Do you think about genitals all the time?” and then goes on with an explicit exposition of how “I do, and it drives me crazy.” Cindy Goldfield is a knockout when she practices for the assembled Emma’s talk on the role of environment in the process of education, hilariously using grand gestures and outstretched, body stances to illustrate many of the words and concepts of her several-minute, grand performance. When her Emma is in the room, there is always an air of a star on stage, with all around her – even Fefu – somewhat in awe of her aura and natural magnetism.
Much of the credit for the evening and its tour’s success must be given to the directorial prowess of ACT’s Artistic Director, Pam Mackinnon. She ensures that the setting of the 30s and the script of the 70s have 2022 relevance as more than just a museum piece by directing her cohort, female cast to provide full authenticity, heart, and clarity of purpose into each of their characters.
As the two-hour, thirty-minute evening of María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends comes to a close in American Conservatory Theater’s Strand, we as an audience leave feeling particularly lucky to have been like flies on the wall to observe and relish these women’s retreat from the male-dominated world as they have had the joy of just being themselves – warts and all – with those they can truly call their friends.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
A Theatre Eddy’s Best Bet
Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1, 2022, in performance by American Conservatory Theater at the Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at https://www.act-sf.org or by calling the box office at 415-749-2288.
Photos Credit: Kevin Berne