The forty years since the Obie-winning premiere of María Irene Fornés’s Fefu and Her Friends, directed by the playwright in a SoHo loft, have not softened the play’s bracing strangeness. We’re more used to some of its formal innovations–its rich and elliptical language, its dreamlike logic, its twisting of the physical relationship between audience and performer–at least partly because of the enormous influence of Fornés’s work as a writer and as a teacher. (As the press release quotes Paula Vogel, “In the work of every American playwright at the end of the twentieth century, there are only two stages: before she has read María Irene Fornés and after.” Read rather than seen, note, because Fornés’s work doesn’t get revived all that often; this is Fefu’s first Off-Broadway production.) But the play’s murky emotional depths; its ensemble of women whose luxe polished mannerisms can mask their intense intellectual inquiry, their capacity for silliness, and their deep anguish; its roiling subtexts of sexual attraction and violence and despair–all of them remain as magnetic and as mysterious as ever in director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival, which amps up both the play’s poised and polished surface and its deeply unsettling undercurrents. That contrast, which we see both in each character and in the play’s very structure, is at the heart of the piece, and its investigation of what it means to be a (“modern”) woman.
Set over one long day among a group of eight women attending an event whose purpose becomes clear only late in the play, Fefu, as a whole, is almost plotless, and yet it subsumes as many stories are there are combinations of characters, all circling around the question of what it means to be both a human being and a woman: love triangles and madness, economic struggle and marital discord, not to mention the primal drives of humanity: sex, death, community and companionship. The stories it’s less concerned with, though, are the ones usually ascribed to women: marriage, motherhood, domesticity. These relationships are important but not the entirety of their lives–Fefu’s terror at the crumbling of her marriage is real, and crucial, but it’s only one thread of her being, and hardly the most important one. (Fefu, one could say, passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Compare this, as the program materials do, to Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, from 1936, contemporaneous with the play’s setting. Luce’s play, too, features an entirely female cast, but it centers around the women’s relationships with their husbands, lovers, and children.)
Set in 1935 and first staged in 1978, Fefu brings together this group of well dressed, exquisitely mannered women in the parlor of a luxe home. (The physical environment is gorgeously realized by the team of designers who did the same for Blain-Cruz’s production of Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation last fall: Adam Rigg’s set with its rich blues and greens and lush wallpapers; Montana Levi Blanco’s precise costumes, in a palette of rich neutrals with carefully planned pops of color; and Cookie Jordan’s hair and makeup, which define the characters here as much as their clothes.) The Depression is just ending, Roosevelt’s New Deal is coming into play, and Fascist currents are rising in Europe, though you wouldn’t know it from the play (unless perhaps you, unlike myself, are well-read enough to recognize the name Voltairine de Cleyre, an American feminist and anarchist on whom Fefu has recently given a lecture). We don’t know exactly why the women have gathered until two-thirds of the way through the piece–they’re planning an education fundraiser, it turns out–and for a long time, we’re just dwelling in the eddies among and between them: jokes that are slightly more than jokes, chitchat that tiptoes toward interrogation, an overall sense that veers between delight and unease.
The host, Fefu (Amelia Workman), seems to deliberately push her guests’ boundaries, and has a deeply strange relationship with her unseen husband. Christina (Juliana Canfield) is a newcomer to the group, intimate with Cindy (Jennifer Lim) but not most of the others, and her timidity sometimes crosses the line into whimpering childishness. Julia (Brittany Bradford) is paralyzed after a hunting accident last year, but her paralysis seems more connected to a head injury sustained in the accident–and other symptoms of mental illness–than spinal cord damage.
So far, nothing you wouldn’t see in a Chekhov play, except for the absence of men. But then the rest of the group arrives in a flurry of activity–and the play cracks open, physically, like a Faberge egg revealing an entire landscape within. The audience is divided into parts and brought onstage and behind the scenes, into four new spaces (a study, a kitchen, and a lawn surrounding the living room in backstage and wing areas, and Julia’s bedroom, beneath the stage and viewed through a glass floor as if she were in Sleeping Beauty’s coffin). Any action–such as it was–is suspended, and we shift into tiny scenes (performed simultaneously four times, with each quadrant of the audience viewing them in a different sequence) featuring two or three of the characters and imbued with their dreams (Cindy), terrifying hallucinations (Julia), theories about love (Paula), and sex (Emma and Fefu).
Part III returns us to the living room of Part I, with the audience back in their seats, but the energies unleashed remain: we can’t unknow Fefu’s sadness, or Emma’s propensity for thinking of genitals, or Cecila and Paula’s breakup. At the same time, the action itself is full of joy and activity: a water fight, a possible reunion between lovers, the event the women are planning. Still, we also can’t, a la Chekhov, lose track of Fefu’s shotgun. But, like the rest of the piece, the outcome will not be as simple as a cause-and-effect relationship between gun and wound.
Although the costumes speak specifically to the time period, the play also has a timeless, abstract quality, with little reference to historical events or sense of place. Its original production crossed a forty-year gap between setting and production; in crossing the next forty years, Blain-Cruz rethinks the casting. Instead of the ensemble of white women one might expect from a drawing-room piece in 1930s Boston, this ensemble uses the entire spectrum of contemporary American actors, adding both a visual modernity–this is what we would expect to see at a gathering of urban women plotting a progressive educational event in 2019–and currents of history–how do Julia’s hallucinations of subjugation or Paula’s memories of childhood poverty shift when performed by women of color? Blain-Cruz fuses the actors into a true ensemble–on the one hand, they’re all drawn with the same surface sheen, with precise diction, languid mannerisms, and vocal patterns drawn from the same well. On the other, their energies and physicalities are strikingly different. Workman’s Fefu is always posing at angles, taking up more space with her body and her stride, and leaping into conversation in great gulps. Despite Julia’s anguished mental state, Bradford has a serenity, an aura of calm that none of the others show. Canfield’s Christina tends to shrink into herself, in both body and face, while Helen Cespedes’s Emma bounces like Tigger, with the same exuberant energy.
The sheer logistical challenges of the piece are real–moving 300 audience members four times, and finding four spaces to put them other than the permanent seating, takes an amount of time that can’t be minimized. While the repeated process of being taken physically deeper into the play but emotionally interrupting the absorption in it is an intrinsic part of the experience, an audience of this size and a venue this traditional are perhaps not the ideal setting. There’s a choppiness to the experience of part II because the amount of time it takes to shift the audience each time is almost equal to the lengths of its scenes.
But this is also perhaps partly because we’ve become used to a much more seamless and total kind of environmental theater, a genre Fornés helped to invent: Sleep No More, Third Rail’s Then She Fell and Ghost Light, the current Black History Museum–all draw on Fefu’s legacy. The play feels poised at the center of a web of connections across the theatrical universe of both its forebears and its descendants: stretching from Chekhov’s The Seagull and its famous gun, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with its poisonously acerbic view of marriage, Luce’s The Women, Shakespeare (a literal quotation of a sonnet, in this case), Tennessee Williams’s kitchen-sink realism, even the heroines of film noir with their murky pasts, to current plays as varied as Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, and countless others. It shouldn’t still feel radical to anchor the theatrical canon on a play of and about women, but it does.