Review: ‘Fefu and Her Friends’ at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater (*****)

Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) , the perfectly elegant hostess, prepares a drink for the very tense Christina (Sarita Ocón) in ACT’s Strand Theater production of MarÍa Irene Fornés’ “Fefu and Her Friends.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

You may not have heard of playwright María Irene Fornés who passed away in 2018 in her late 80s, following a decades long career as a playwright. Her work was known off-off Broadway and won multiple Obie awards. She was nominated for a Pulitzer. Outside of theatrical circles she is little known, and none of her work (as far as I can tell) has ever been produced on Broadway. This great and brilliant playwright (coincidentally Susan Sontag’s partner for a number of years) may be one of the best kept secrets in the American theatre.

Although she never saw her work on Broadway, or became a  household word, she is famous and influential among playwrights as a teacher, a practice to which she was deeply dedicated.

Her story is fascinating and her work so remarkable that it is impossible not to reflect that her relative obscurity is likely due in no small part to her gender.

It is no surprise that A.C.T., who has stated their intent of putting more woman-focussed productions on stage, decided to revive Fornés’ masterpiece, “Fefu and Her Friends,” a hyper-realistic play with a surrealistic undertow, that features a perfectly-balanced ensemble cast of eight woman and no men. That such a cast is, even now, a rarity, is an observation worthy of some serious reflection.

And what a play it is!

Fefu is throwing a party for old friends at her very charming upscale country home. Although she has an unseen husband lurking about the place, and some of the women invited mention male partners or husbands, no such persons are present. It is an all women event.

And such women! Gracious, professional, well-mannered, obviously well educated and accustomed to the trappings of wealth. And each of them has a successful career in the arts.

But we quickly realize that something strange is going on under the surface of their charmed lives. Periodically, Fefu slips away from her duties as host to stalk her husband with a shotgun loaded with blanks. When she spots him, she shoots, and he pretends to fall down dead. She enjoys the game, she explains to a startled and somewhat disturbed guest, and it’s exciting because maybe, some day, there’ll be real bullets.

One of the guests, Christina, appears to be alright, except for her insistence that she is not drinking before asking for an ice cube with just, literally, two drops of booze.

Most peculiar of the bunch is wheel-chair bound Meg who suffers from a mysterious illness, which may or not be psychomatic, as well as a brain injury which causes petit mal seizures. She is cheerfully brittle, haunted by nightmares and perhaps prophetic visions.

One gets the sense that these women are somehow being stalked by a mysterious but invisible threat—something unseen that is after their health, their sanity, their lives, even their very souls.

And still, they play croquet.

The play unfolds in a series of conversations revealing various and interesting back stories and, in spite of the mystery in the background, presented in a hyper realistic manner. It is also immersive in that the audience moves about the theatre into various rooms, following the actors as if we are part of the play ourselves (and perhaps we are). The journey takes us from the main auditorium through three stories of the theatre before returning us to the auditorium for the denoument. All of this requires and receives superb work from the entire design team.

All of the women are fascinating, their stories entertertaining, the mystery (never fully solved) intriguing, the implications challenging. It is difficult to say more than that. This is a play to be discovered not described.

Should you attend this party (and you should accept the invitation!), you’ll enjoy some marvelous performances. Each of the actresses is given a spotlight moment to shine and they make the best of it. Perhaps the best of the best is presented by Cindy Goldfield as Emma, whose rendition of a speech in the style of a Vaudeville elocutionist is madly funny, yet a total artistic success. Some of the credit for this must undoubtedly be shared with the production’s movement coach, Danyon Davis.

Fefu’s party is one you will never forget and you’ll head home stuffed with the proverbial “food for thought.”

“Fefu and Her Friends’ plays at the Strand Theater through May 1, 2022. For further information click here.

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
____________________________

“Fefu and Her Friends” by MarÍa Irene Fournès. Produced by ACT’s Strand Theater. Director: Pam Mackinnon. Dramaturg: Joy Meads. Scenic Designer: Tanya Orellana. Costume Designer: Sarita Fellows. Lighting Designer: Russell H. Champa. Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. Video Content Designer: Hana S. Kim. Hair and Makeup Manager: Consuelo T. Lopez-Robins. Props Manager: Janice Gartin. Voal Coach: Christine Adaire. Movement Coach: Danyon Davis.

Cast:

Fefu: Catherine Castellanos. Emma: Cindy Goldfield. Cecilia: Marga Gomez. Cindy: Jennifer Ikeda. Sue: Leontyne Mbele Mbong. Cindy: Jennifer Ikeda. Sue: Leontyne Mbele Mbong. Christina: Sarita Ocón. Julia: Lisa Anne Porter. Paula: Stacy Ross.

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