Even When the Audience Stays in its Seats, Fefu and Her Friends is Intense

In 1935, seven girlfriends gather at Fefu’s luxurious country home in New England. The house is well appointed, looking like a Cedric Gibbons’ MGM fantasy torn from Norma Desmond’s imagination.

Thank you designer Ryan McGettigan, for the skewed lintels, the wallpaper shreds of women through art history (Grant Wood’s American Gothic pinched pioneer wife; a Botticelli beauty seen in profile, a rosy Renoir; a haunting Matisse), the lights shaded in fringed fabric, the wicker furniture, the chrome bar cart. This is deluxe living á la Hollywood dream factory.

But wait, there’s more. Macy Lyne’s costumes reek of bygone cinematic glamour: Dietrich and Hepburn’s high-waisted trousers, circus-stripped lounging pajamas, wide-legged floral pantaloons that Ginger Rogers would have danced in, shawls with tassels, pearl-encrusted bodices, pleated tops in burnt orange or cerulean blue. We’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re in Maria Irene Fornes’s state of mind, and there hasn’t been another distaff planet quite so mesmerizing as her feminist, phantasmagoric Fefu and Her Friends (1978), now beguiling all at Catastrophic Theatre.

Cuban-American Fornes has been described as “America’s great unknown playwright.” During the ’60s and ’70s, she was queen of off-off Broadway, the epitome of downtown avant-garde theater, winner of nine prestigious Obie Awards and nominee for a Pulitzer Prize. She was an exacting director, who’d position an actor’s arm just so or re-focus a light so it exactly matched her vision. She was an influential writing teacher whose admirers ranged from Sam Shepherd, Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, Lanford Wilson, and Paula Vogel. For years, her lover was Susan Sontag. Her only Broadway play, the comedy The Office (1966), directed by superstar Jerome Robbins, closed in previews.

Tinged with feminism, her plays run the gamut from wildly experimental to somewhat realistic, usually with idiosyncratic structure – when there is any – to hard-edged, yet wispy, poetics. She’s more about characters and where and how they fit in society. Women are her subject, either bonding together or battling as best they can against the patriarchy. She was as fierce and determined a writer/director/teacher as are her plays.

Fefu is perhaps her most accessible work. As far as I can determine, it was the first of what would later be called “immersive” theater. After Scene 1, where all eight female characters are introduced, the audience, divided into four groups by colored wrist bands, would move to separate places to watch four different scenes set in a bedroom, the exterior lawn, the kitchen, and the living room. Everyone would see the exact same scene played out, with actors entering or exiting from one scene into the next. It was quite revolutionary for the time, years before Alan Ayckbourn time-traveled in House and Garden or Punchdrunk amazed with its Macbeth spin-off Sleep No More.

Catastrophic uses a 1996 Fornes revision, that leaves the audience in place. For sure, it’s much less gimmicky, although we do miss Julia’s horrifically chilling monologue, seen through a glass floor as if in a crypt, and hearing her demons through headphones. But it’s better that we stay in our seats. The drama isn’t broken into pieces, and the build-up is that much more intense.

But all these characters, each differentiated by how they’ve been treated by men – and each other – are intriguing to listen to, but end up sounding the same. Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (1936), though positively antediluvian in its outlook on male/female relationships, has truly distinct portrayals within its all-female cast. And there’s that knock-out cat fight on the ranch in Reno. Here, there are three people who register as more than ciphers or semaphores: Fefu (Courtney Lomelo), Julia (Amy Bruce), and Emma (Lindsay Ehrhardt.) Lomelo strides, struts, and has an unerring aim with a shotgun. She’s a natural in pants. Stand up, she shouts at Julia, I know you can. She wants all her friends to be as commanding as she, to be in control. In Fornes’ world, it’s not that simple. Unseen, her husband is always there, off stage, an easy target, but she shoots blanks. Strong and resilient, so in need of independence, her destiny is always tied to him.

Julia, played by a distraught Bruce, is tied to her wheelchair with a psychosomatic illness and seems in complete masochistic meltdown. She submits to the power of men. “If a man commits an evil act, he must be pitied. The evil comes from outside him. Woman generates the evil herself.” Fefu will have none of this, and unwittingly causes the tragedy at the end. With her tics and unseen slaps to the face, Bruce is terrifically haunted, the saddest of the lot.

Emma, though, is terrifically chipper, under Lindsay Ehrhardt’s moony glow and comic laser-timing. She enters in a scrumptious apple-green dress with yellow gloves and never lessens in intensity. She’s been colorized. She radiates positivity, and her gem-like scene about genitals steals the show, as it should. Her Emma is fresh air and sunshine, a bubbly balm within Fefu’s stately symbolic house.

Played without intermission, Fefu and Her Friends wearies near the end only because we’re one step ahead of Fornes these days. We got it twice the first time, as a veteran singer in New York used to say. Which isn’t that Fornes isn’t worth heeding. No indeed, she’s very much timely, forthright, and resolute. If only she could have written for Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck…or Charles Busch.

The other friends, written with a bit more haze and diffusion, are nevertheless neatly turned by Brittny Bush (Paula), Jeanne Harris (Cindy), Laura Moreno (Sue), Karina Pal Montaño-Bowers (Christina), and Lisa Villegas (Cecelia).