BWW Review: FEFU AND HER FRIENDS REIGN AT CATASTROPHIC THEATRE
In 1985, in cartoonist Alison Bechdel‘s comic strip DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, two women discuss seeing a film. One character explains that she only goes to movies if they meet certain criteria – the movie has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man. Thus was born the Bechdel Test.
If you want to see the Bechdel test in action, Catastrophic Theatre has your ticket in Maria Irene Fornes‘ FEFU AND HER FRIENDS. Fornes is a mainstay of theatre classrooms and textbooks, often taught but seldom produced. FEFU in particular is rarely produced – in the original script; the middle section of the play moves the audience to four different locations to witness scenes that are happening simultaneously. Productions became more about logistics than staying connected to the action of the play. In 1996 Fornes directed a revised version in which the action remains static, and Catastrophic has chosen to produce that version. I admit I was slightly disappointed – having studied Fornes in college but never having seen one of her pieces onstage,I was curious to experience the immersive section. But I get it – it’s such an intimate story, I can’t imagine trying to re-engage after wandering around a room and seeing scenes in random order.
The first time I read FEFU in college I didn’t love it – I didn’t connect with these women and their contrived, stilted dialogue about nothing. ‘Real people don’t talk like this’, was my worldly college student opinion. They don’t – but Fornes and reality don’t go hand in hand, even though she calls this the ‘most’ realistic of her plays. Fortunately this production is delivered by a company that understands the work and how to convey it, from start to alarming finish.
Ryan McGettigan has once again produced a stellar set design. The drawing room of a 1930’s home is ultra-realistic except for the walls – huge murals of famous female portraits peering through shredded floral wall paper. Seeing McGettigan’s name attached to any project is an assurance for me that there will be thoughtful, engaging design work. The 1930’s costumes by Macy Lyne were show-stopping- I half expected to see Katherine Hepburn and Greta Garbo swirl into the room in a flurry of wide-legged pants and jaunty ties. The costumes and set keep the show grounded in the thirties time frame; although written in 1977, Fornes explained in the program notes that she chose the 1930’s because the era was ‘pre-Freud’ and people accepted each other at face value more, with less ‘interpreting’.
Fefu embodies that concept – she blurts out whatever is on her mind with no qualifications, and leaves it up to her friends and the audience to decide what she means, or if she means anything at all. Courtney Lomelo plays Fefu with a no-nonsense pragmatism and boundless energy; as she welcomes her friends to her home, she is part host, part entertainer,part handyman, delighting in her own ability to repair plumbing as she watches her marriage disintegrate.
Lomelo is just one of 8 very strong actors inhabiting this play. The playwright calls it plotless, which it very nearly is – the vague premise of these friends gathering to prepare for an education conference is merely framework to display the relationships between 8 very different women. As each woman arrives she has a quip or anecdotal greeting that defines her character fairly quickly; we know and understand them almost immediately. Timid Christina (Karina Pal Montano-Bowers) is constantly appalled at Fefu’s outlandish statements, and is unsure whether she even likes her, acting as a conduit for the audience – she best represents how we feel about Fefu. Montano-Bowers is relatable and human; Jeanne Harris as Cindy is elegant and cool, and alarmed but unruffled by her friend’s unpredictable actions. Each actress has a real moment to shine, and Harris is mesmerizing in hers – a detailed description of an intense dream about being molested by a doctor, and finding the strength to stand up for herself.
Amy Bruce plays Julia, who spends most of the show in a wheelchair due to a bizarre accident we never really understand. Bruce is intense and effective; her physicality with the wheelchair and her seizures is studied and never over the top. Bruce’s ‘moment’ comes in a hallucinatory monologue on men, prayer and the nature of evil – it is intimate and harrowing. Bryan Ealey’s lighting in this scene is spooky as hell – the giant female portraits in the wallpaper, lit with shades of red, become demonic witnesses to Julia’s breakdown.
Laura Moreno‘s Sue is bubbly and comforting, as close to a mother figure as we have. As Cecilia, Lisa Villegas turns in one of my favorite performances – she is elegant, intelligent, and uncomfortable with Fefu and her antics; Cecilia and her (perhaps) former lover Paula (a dashing Brittny Bush) have a hinted-at back story that made me want to know more.
In the aforementioned program notes, Forms says she doesn’t know if the play is Fefu’s story, or Julia’s; for me it was Emma’s. Emma is based on real life reformer Emma Sheridan Fry; her defining speech is derived from a prologue by the real-life Emma Fry. Lindsay Ehrhardt is incandescent as Emma. She enters dramatically, a vivacious bohemian. Ehrhardt delivers a bold, passionate performance with moments of tenderness. I found myself ready to join whatever movement she was promoting – she embodies this charismatic free spirit in a way that is at once madcap 30’s comedy and Paris salon.
FEFU AND HER FRIENDS passes the Bechdel test with glowing colors – there are no men seen, and only mentioned briefly, even though we feel their presence as plot catalysts. As these women make soup, have water fights and practice French, read aloud from magazines and eat bourbon popsicles, cry and laugh and struggle, they mostly talk about what it is like to be women. How to make space for themselves, and hold space for other women. That is a rare thing.
FEFU AND HER FRIENDS runs through March 8th at The Match. Visit www.catastrophictheatre.com for tickets, which are always Pay-What-You-Can at Catastrophic.