Deconstructing Female Empowerment in 1930s New England
By Patrick Hurley
Considered a feminist classic, an avant-garde trailblazer, and a groundbreaking theatrical experience Fefu and her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes, playing now at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, is at once confounding, inquisitive, and thought-provoking.
The play was first produced in 1977, and takes place in New England in 1935. It centers around outspoken and jovial Fefu (Tiffany Cole), and a group of her female friends, all of whom have joined her for a weekend at her home to prepare for a presentation they will be giving on education. Fefu keeps mentioning that she is in “constant pain”- not physical, but something deeper, perhaps spiritual- the source of which is unknown. Julia (Sandy Duarte) is bound to a wheelchair and is also in constant pain. The source of her pain, however, is hallucinatory. These two characters seem to be the driving force of the events that occur over the course of this one day at Fefu’s home.
It’s interesting to note that all of the women are middle-class, and educated. There is a level of privilege that is not meant to be glossed over. The plotless piece focuses on the interaction of these characters, as they confront their past, with each other and others. They talk about their unhappy marriages, their old university days, and, for two of them, a past romance. All while demonstrating the necessity of human interaction and bonding. This is a play about finding one’s “tribe.” But it’s also a play about coming to terms with the pain and difficulty of being a woman, of, more specifically-femaleness.
In the opening scene, Fefu expresses her preference for men. She explains that she would rather be in their company. She distrusts women, a sentiment echoed throughout the piece in obvious and sometimes subtle ways. Fornes creates a brilliant device through which her characters can share more intimacy–she moves the audience to different rooms of her house.
Once all of the women arrive, the play shifts from a “traditional” experience, to a slightly more interactive one- a device that is growing more and more popular as traditional theater forms begin to feel outdated. But for Fornes, in 1977, this was a more radical approach. So, after we meet Fefu and her friends, the audience is separated into smaller groups and invited to four different parts of the house to eavesdrop on private conversations. This allows for a social experiment to commence. We, the audience, not only get to see these women when they interact all together, but we also get to see them in small groups, sharing more personal moments. And for Julia, a monologue that delves deeper into her psychic pain because we get to see her alone in a bedroom.
This production, under the direction of Denise Blasor has a functional energy to it. It moves a bit like a Robert Altman film, where conversations and actions sometimes overlap and are seemingly just everyday occurrences. It’s a recipe for verisimilitude. And all of the women in the cast add vital ingredients toward its success. Most notably Tiffany Cole, whose Fefu is infused with enough exuberance to warrant a well-earned climactic moment with Julia. The problem with this production is with the transitions from room to room. It took too long, and between waiting in line to move, and sitting on benches in each room, it felt like being at a theme park. Because of this, the play is extended to over two hours and twenty minutes, and it just felt like a gimmick.
The piece is meant to be theater for a reason, and not just to interact with the audience. There is a surreal aspect that theater affords with very little effort. And for the women in this play, their struggles with a patriarchal society have pushed some of them to the very brink of despair. This despair is real, but unexplainable for Fefu, and completely illusion for Julia, who is a broken woman by means of transitory and intangible pain. And though the souce of the pain is unreal, the pain itself is manifest from years and years of victimization. Fornes is playing with realism, but also with form.
And what better medium than theater to play with form? The audience is divided into four groups for the second act, and each scene plays four times as the audience moves between them, thus giving four different experiences, four different versions of this play. So that when the audience is reunited for the final act, we are divided in our understanding and dissection of meaning because we witnessed events unfold in different order. Theater is alive, and requires the participation of the audience, and Fornes understood this well enough to demand our participation in a way that changes her work.
When Fefu fires her husband’s gun at the end of the play, the resulting action is meant to represent a release. A release from pain, from the restrictions of simply being female, Fefu may have taken steps toward the rejection of femaleness and her friends, and perhaps the ambiguity of the last moments of this play are posing a question rather than offering an answer. And yet, for Fefu and all of her friends, being a woman is a kind of double-edged sword, through the pain and despair of their experiences, there is tremendous solace and comfort in the company of each other. The play is more than feminist, it’s more than realistic, it’s a solid deconstruction of ideas that propel feminine archetypes, behaviors and relationships from the perspective of a woman. There is a sense of empowerment in the collection of these women. A sense of tribal identity, that theater sorely needed when this play was written. And sadly, as I write this in 2019, a thing that is still sadly lacking in Hollywood. When it’s all said and done, there are plenty of effective and provocative moments, and this production is definitely worth your while.
By María Irene Fornés
Fefu and her Friends
Directed by Denise Blasor
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, Ca. 90025