A Fragmented Feminist Whirlwind In ‘Fefu And Her Friends’

Fefu and Her Friends is a 1977 play by María Irene Fornés that’s almost as well-known for being unconventional as it is for being remarkable. But the thought-provoking iteration that marks Thinking Cap Theatre’s post-pandemic return to full-fledged productions proves that this is a play as excellent as it is experimental, and one that deserves its lasting place in the American canon.

On its surface, the play follows a group of unusual women who have gathered at their friend Stephanie or “Fefu’s” country house to plan a presentation for their charity in 1935. But, on a more thematic level, it might be worth warning any theatergoer who favors conventional fare that Fefu’s impressionistically informed and non-linear landscape makes it the kind of play you could get lost trying to interpret, or, in fact, even lost while trying to see. This is because another of the things that Fefu is famous for is Fornes’s pioneering use of site-specific theatre, which Thinking Cap’s unconventional new venue Mad Arts is uniquely well suited to. After a unified “Act One” that introduces us to the characters and setting is staged in a relatively conventional fashion in the building’s main theatre space, or “living room,” in “Act Two”, audience members are asked to walk to four other rooms in the venue to see the four scenes that make up the act play out. 

Photo Credits: Isabelle Wittebort

In most productions of the play, audience members are assigned wristbands instructing them on what order they should visit the rooms in, but Thinking Cap’s variation instead allowed audiences to choose their path themselves. It’s a risky move, and one that necessitated the last minute addition of a few chairs to one playing space during the segment I stumbled upon it, but it likely made for a more exploratory feel that heightened the play’s sense of surreality. It made the whole things feel less like a curated experience and more like you were only an interloper wandering the characters’ world and eavesdropping on their conversations, an effect only aided by the intimacy of these smaller playing spaces and which also made that world feel far more real and textured than one only viewed from afar. 

This central fragmentation also had the effect of turning the play into a kind of puzzle, one that kept me consistently engaged in what was happening as I worked to put the pieces together, more in the way one might draw meaning from life as lived than from a conventional narrative. Intriguingly, certain characters also occasionally popped from one scene to another, creating a sense of continuity between them and requiring masterful timing on the cast and production team’s part. 

During this breakaway section, two of the more conservative characters discuss their uneasiness with Fefu’s rebellious ways in the study, while, in the kitchen, another reckons with a past love affair. Elsewhere, on the lawn, the flamboyant Emma educates Fefu on her unique views on genitalia and cosmology as the mysteriously paralyzed Julia reckons with invisible demons that seem to represent patriarchal forces. The action then moves back to the living room for an “Act 3,” in which the women solidify their presentation plans. Eventually, tensions within the group escalate, and a shocking representation of violence ends the play on an unforgettable note. 

Photo Credits: Isabelle Wittebort

But really, these attempts of mine to explain what the play is “about” scarcely get at the overall quality of the piece, which is also known for being without a conventional “plot.” Instead of from “what happens,” meaning is mostly created from ambiguous but resonant symbolism combined with what the tableau seems to suggest about the enormity and inescapability of the constraints society places on women as a whole.In the end, it’s a piece that makes much more sense when experienced than when read or described, and, since Thinking Cap does a pretty great job of putting the difficult play together, now is as good a time as any to see what you make of it yourself. 

Witty, humorous dialogue and a slew of great performances from an experienced all-female cast also make the ride an entertaining as well as an interesting one. Rita Cole as the magnetic but no-nonsense Fefu, Sara Grant as the wildly theatrical Emma, and Angelina López Catledge as the seemingly demure and secretly tormented Julia were probably the stand-out players, but Jessica Farr also nails one affecting Act 3 speech as Paula, and the ensemble as a whole meshed well as a unit and are all due their props. Direction by Nicole Stodard also balances the playfulness of the women with the play’s moments of seriousness and intensity, and costumes by Stodard and sets by Alyiece Moretto-Watkins also ensured each character and each location were well-differentiated. 

Photo Credits: Isabelle Wittebort

Given the play’s complexity, it’s also impressive that all the play’s technical elements stayed in alignment and the whole evening proceeded with minimal confusion. So, if you’re prepared for an evening of theatre that’s more than a little out of the box and that may leave you with more questions than answers, you have the chance to check out Fefu and Her Friends yourself only until this June 19th!

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