Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Fefu and Her Friends"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


By Marie Irene Fornes
Directed by Christopher Scully

Fefu ….. Ava Geffen
Cindy ….. Emma Dassori
Christina ….. Danielle L. DiDio
Julia ….. Irene Daly
Emma ….. Kristin Baker
Sue ….. Linda Tsang
Paula ….. Marisa Pell
Cecilia ….. Juliet Nelson

The Industrial Theatre takes a giant step forward from its pajama-clad Lady Macbeth to Fefu in a mandarin coat and all is forgiven, for their latest production is FEFU AND HER FRIENDS by Maria Irene Fornes, and with Ms. Fornes one expects the unexpected. Ironically, this theatre company who took such liberties with the Bard now finds itself puzzling over Ms. Fornes' rubex cube of a play and becomes docile, obedient and….frustrated? And where does that leave its audience?

FEFU AND HER FRIENDS takes place in various rooms of Fefu's country home somewhere in New England. From the look of the costumes and some of the hairstyles, the era could be the 1930s. Fefu, a free spirit, is married to Philip (who remains offstage), and since she is in the habit of firing rifle blanks at him, one could say Fefu is more wild than free, and unhappy, too. Fefu plays hostess to seven other women – friends and colleagues – and they talk about women's education, men, and each other. After an amusing Part I, which introduces all of the women, the play starts to wander in Part II – as does the audience, who are led away in groups to four different rooms in the Old Leverett Library to witness in close proximity the unfolding relationships between Fefu and her friends. The audience is then led back to the playing area for Part III and somewhat of a resolution.

What to make of all this? As I said, expect the unexpected with Ms. Fornes. She is an extremely clever playwright – both childlike and sophisticated – deftly bouncing words off craniums in a style part Lewis Carroll, part vaudeville. The following excerpt from her play THE SUCCESSFUL LIFE OF 3 captures Ms. Fornes at her playful best:

* * *
[My note: Two men, HE and 3, are waiting in a doctor's office.]
(SHE enters wearing a nurse's uniform.)
HE: Miss, you're a fine dish.
SHE: Thanks. (SHE exits and re-enters.)
HE: Miss, I would like to bounce on you.
SHE: Thank you. (To 3) Come in, please.
(3 and SHE exit. SHE re-enters.)
HE: Miss, I would like to bang you.
SHE: Your friend just did.
HE: Well, I'm next.
SHE: I only do it once a day.
* * *

At times Ms. Fornes can go All Brain and a tad too rarefied to be "popular" (as in FEFU AND HER FRIENDS); for me, her most accessible work remains her musical, PROMENADE, where Al Carmines's wonderful score keeps one foot of her lyrics firmly on the ground (similar to Virgil Thomson's music for Gertrude Stein's FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS) – and even then I would choose Fornes' one-act 1965 version (nice!) over her expanded two-act 1970 one (too much!).

For Industrial's production of FEFU, director Christopher Scully has opted for realism, treating it as a Terribly Important Play, which is too bad, because (1) Ms. Fornes writes Thoughts, not Characters; here, she has divided herself into eight sections, giving each one a turn in the sun, causing Fefu – our Hostess – to get lost amidst the others' talk-talk-talk (the title should have been THE FRIENDS OF FEFU) and (2) Ms. Fornes chooses Thalia, not Melpomene, to score her points. Had Mr. Scully cast eight brainiacs who could bandy Ms. Fornes' dialogues about or else conducted each actress as an instrument in a chamber piece, FEFU could still work as an evening of stimulating conversation a la Shaw's DON JUAN IN HELL. Unfortunately, bereft of style, most of his actresses are treading water here, substituting Seriousness and Significance for Humor and Wit, and oh, the dull thuds that fall (two women singing ALL of "Winter Wonderland", for instance, and in earnest, too); the two actresses playing former lovers seem particularly embarrassed with audience members inches away breathing down their necks. But Part III suddenly erupts into a wonderfully silly water fight where everyone stops being so goddamned cerebral and gets to kick up her heels for once.

Ava Geffen, handsome in her mandarin coat, is far too dark (personality-wise) as our hostess Fefu, becoming a soul-sister to the crippled Julia, who somehow has a psychic link to her and that extremely LOUD rifle. But Kristin Baker's cheery, chilly Emma is radiant Thought personified (I would love to see her take a crack at playing Fefu; she has the right temperament); Irene Daly makes Julia a whirring blender of phrases, especially in her harrowing bed-monologue (extra points if you notice the scissors on her side table); and Emma Dassori is a warm, droll Cindy, the Ultimate Sidekick; too bad that Ms. Fornes gives her little to do other than crack wise far and in between.

Since FEFU has been widely touted as a feminist play, I hope women in the audience won't feel ashamed to admit they don't "get" it. (On the night I attended, one woman across from me – this being theatre-in-the-round – was dozing on and off from All This Thinking.) Hopefully, Mr. Scully and his actresses will soon dig in and start to have fun with Ms. Fornes' wit and wordplay; even if FEFU doesn't go far, the audience can still enjoy the ride. Right now, one might leave the Library concluding that a roomful of highly intelligent women is not a happy one.

[NOTE: Several years ago, the 1970 original cast recording of PROMENADE finally made it to CD on the RCA label. Grab a copy of it while you still can; it's a special little musical and therefore doomed to go out-of-print.]

"Fefu and Her Friends" (1 - 16 February)
Old Leverett Library, Harvard Square, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 257-7480

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