Odyssey Theatre Company and director Denise Blasor have assembled a superb cast of actors for their production of María Irene Fornés’ 1977 play, Fefu and Her Friends. Touted for its all female cast, it is hardly unique in that aspect. Clare Booth Luce had a hit with The Women in 1936 that featured a huge cast of women with never a man in sight. Ms. Fornés’ play calls for a cast of eight, with each character possessing a unique persona.
The time is 1935 and the setting is a large house and grounds in New England. Fefu (the marvelous Tiffany Cole) has gathered a group of friends to rehearse a presentation for their charity. Fefu dominates with her sparkling wit and no-holds-barred personality. She swaggers in her pants, firing blank bullets towards her husband across the lawn. It’s a game they play; she shoots and he falls down…every time. The role of Fefu, as performed by Ms. Cole, calls to mind those strong characters of 1930 films played by Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. She has a devil-may-care attitude, yet beneath it all there is seething resentment of the inferiority imposed by the patriarchy, which restricts all the characters in the play to some degree or other.
The women are close, hugging and kissing each other with tremendous affection. Cindy (Tanya Gorlow) and Christina (Dominique Corona) are the first to arrive. Cindy has a long-standing familiarity with Fefu, while Christina, a newcomer is unsure as to how to perceive the unfettered vivacity of the lady of the house. The shooting game shocks her. Emma (Sydney A. Mason) glides on exotically dressed and absolutely confident. Sue (Alexis Santiago) is a gentle, helpful sort. Slim and arch, Paula (Cynthia Yelle) has an affecting brittleness about her, the source of which is revealed later. Julia (Sandy Duarte) enters in a wheel chair due to a hunting accident. She is subdued and smiling, with deep emotional pain that her pleasantness can’t hide. The last to enter, Cecilia (Jennifer Lee Laks) is subdued, unsmiling, and uncertain.
María Irene Fornés’ play has three parts. The first part is suggested above. The second part makes demands on an audience. Each theatre goer enters with a colored dot on their tickets—yellow, green and so on, which marks the division of the audience into four groups. At a certain point, Fefu tells the audience that they will enter her house. Each of the groups is led by a cast member to different locales in the house and grounds—the garden, the kitchen, a bedroom, and a study. All the scenes in those places are enacted simultaneously with the audience extremely close to the action. The coordination of the scenes is extraordinary (kudos to director Denise Blasor). The action of the scenes can be heard, faintly or loudly, by the audience, which is entertaining or terrifying, depending. It will not do to say more. See the play!
After an intermission, which had this audience member in deep consultation with his seatmate, the play picks up again in the main room. The press release suggests that Fefu and Her Friends is a comedy-drama. I can verify that this is true. There is a scene in which the so-called rehearsal for a charity presentation had each character get up and say something about the ostensible goal of the meeting. This part of the play had me scratching my imaginary head with my imaginary fingers. Most characters, instead of reciting what they will say, indicate the content of their speeches with, essentially, “Blah, blah, blah!” Emma, however, delivers an extended rendition of her speech, derived, according to one source, as “lines from a children’s acting teacher.” Ms. Mason delivered the speech with wonderful enthusiasm. I could make neither head nor tail of it. The last segment of the play grows dark and disturbing.
Fefu and Her Friends is regarded as a feminist play, which it certainly is. Aspects of the eternal female situation are on full display. The terrific cast is passionate in their playing whether delightfully funny, terrifying, or affecting. The characters as written, however, are thinly drawn. The playwright was after something else.
The production is marvelous with set designed by Frederica Nascimento, lighting by Katelan Braymer, sound by Christopher Moscatiello, costumes by Denise Blasor and Josh La Cour, and props by Mateo Rudich. And one can only imagine the tremendous skill that Jacob Price employed as stage manager. Together, they have turned Odyssey, with its three venues, into a theatrical playground.
I think Monty Python says it best “…And Now for Something Completely Different…”
Presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Ron Sossi Artistic Director, in association with Gloria Levy, Fefu and Her Friends runs through September 29 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.