Fefu picks up a double-barrel shotgun and shoots at her husband near the beginning of “Fefu and Her Friends,” billed as a modern classic and written by the beloved avant-garde playwright Maria Irene Fornés, who died in October 2018 at the age of 88. “It’s a game we play,” Fefu explains matter-of-factly to her friends, putting the gun back against the drawing room chair. “I shoot and he falls. Whenever he hears the blast he falls.”
For the first time in 40 years, Off-Broadway theatergoers can actually hear that gunshot blast too, thanks to a Theater for a New Audience production, directed by Liliana Blain-Cruz, that is itself a blast….for much of the time. For the rest of the time, it’s…..well, to quote the director herself on her reaction when discovering the work of Maria Irene Fornés: ““Oh my god. I don’t understand anything that’s going on, but I love it.”
Written in 1977, the play was originally presented Off-Off Broadway in a Soho loft, and transferred Off-Broadway the following year. It has rarely been staged since, but the script has gained a cult-like following, especially among theater artists.
One can understand the appeal of the play as literature. On the surface, it is about a gathering of eight women in a New England country house in 1935 to organize and rehearse a charity event. That surface soon disassembles, in several ways. Normal logic is turned on its head, to create a new, upside down logic. In one scene, for example, Fefu and her friend Emma agree that the people who go to Heaven are those who have had passionate sex, and Hell is reserved for those who performed it “as an obligation.”
“On earth we are judged by public acts, and sex is a private act….. So naturally, it stands to reason that it must be angels who judge our sexual life.”
Such enjoyably perverse Oscar Wilde-like wit abounds in “Fefu and Her Friends,” but unlike Wilde, Fornes displays no interest in creating a clever plot around her clever remarks – or indeed, much of any plot.
Yet, “Fefu and Her Friends” on stage offers pleasures not available on the page. The play can be seen as a pioneer in immersive theater decades before the term was in use. After an initial scene set in the living room, the audience is split into four groups, and we’re moved around to four ten-minute scenes, which take place in sets designed as a bedroom, a study, the kitchen and the lawn. The actors repeat each scene four times, once for each audience group. This is an impressive act of coordination, especially since some of the cast members appear in more than one scene. It also offers the theatergoers a chance to get closer to the characters. We learn in the kitchen scene, for example, that Cecilia (Carmen Zilles) and Paula (Lindsay Rico) were lovers. The most vivid of these scenes, and the most imaginatively staged, is set in the bedroom. It’s a monologue by Julia (Brittany Bradford) who we saw in the first scene using a wheelchair after a hunting accident – though we’re told that she just received a surface wound to her forehead that couldn’t possibly have paralyzed her. In any case, the director has staged the bedroom scene beneath the floorboards; we see Julia through a plexiglass ceiling and hear her by wearing headsets.
It is a stream-of-consciousness hallucination in which she talks about being tortured and describes women as inferior to men. To quote selectively:
“The human being is of the masculine gender. The human being is a boy as a child and grown up he is a man. Everything on earth is for the human being, which is man. To nourish him… Woman is not a human being. She is: 1. A mystery. 2. Another species. 3. As yet undefined. 4. Unpredictable; therefore wicked and gentle and evil and good which is evil. If a man commits an evil act, he must be pitied. The evil comes outside him…Woman generates the evil herself.”
This speech is one of the strongest of many clues that Fornés is using the play to explore female consciousness and the way women have been damaged by male-dominated society. This is also reflected in the very first line of the play, when Fefu says: “My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are.” It’s worth noting that there are men in the country house, but they are only discussed; they don’t exist as characters on stage. (Fefu is on stage when she shoots her husband, but he’s off-stage.) As a rare play that has an all-female cast who speak with and about one another, “Fefu and Her Friends” feels almost like a companion piece to “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf,” which Ntozake Shange wrote in the same era, and is also getting a current revival. (She also died in October, 2018.)
But theatergoers should not expect the same feminist consciousness-raising from “Fefu and Her Friends,” nor any kind of clear-cut thematic or narrative coherence. The fine design team even offers a visual hint about this sketchiness from the get-go. Although the sets use standard furniture familiar to drawing room comedies, the living room walls are full of drawings that look half-finished.
What we do get in “Fefu and Her Friends” is a committed cast, and the second play in a posthumous revival of the work of Maria Irene Fornés, which started in New York this past summer with her splendid (and more accessible) musical Promenade. One hopes other producers are inspired to offer at least a few more of the 40 plays that Fornés wrote in an exemplary if relatively little known 40 year career.