Riveting ‘Fefu and Her Friends’ dares to take risks, triumphs

Scene from the play Fefu and Her Friends
Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Fefu and Her Friends” greets its guests with a charming 1930’s living room set that playfully invites salon banter. Shortly before the performance starts, however, audience members are told a detail that may cause unsuspecting theater-goers to do a double-take — “Fefu and Her Friends” will not stay in the living room for long, and viewers will travel throughout the A.C.T. building to various locations within Fefu’s house throughout the duration of the play. The play’s unusual staging is just one of its shining successes — any worries that the feature is gimmicky are quickly proved wrong.

“Fefu and Her Friends” takes place over the course of one day at Fefu’s (Catherine Castellanos) house. She invites several friends, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda), Christina (Sarita Ocón), Julia (Lisa Anne Porter), Emma (Cindy Goldfield), Paula (Stacy Ross), Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and Cecilia (Marga Gomez), to rehearse a presentation for a charity toward youth education. As the friends catch up and enjoy each other’s company, Julia’s hallucinations and Fefu’s demonstrations of control take the night down a dark turn.

The play, written by Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés and directed by Tony-nominated director Pam MacKinnon, features an all-female cast. Touted as a feminist play, “Fefu and Her Friends” explores the lives of its female characters and the limitations they face given rigid gender norms. The play geniusly touches on these themes; the audience slowly builds a subtle understanding of the negative effects of stifling expectations through witnessing the women’s ordinary conversations with one another. 

At first glance — or anything short of astute observation — “Fefu and Her Friends” seems to lack feminist intentions. Ironically and impressively, the play is ultra-aware of its commentary on gender to deliver its message delicately. “Fefu and Her Friends” is both playful and familiar as well as eerie and mysterious, posing troubling questions in its final moments that the play only begins to answer — if one looks for it. The plot ends strangely, but it provides a satisfying kind of confusion; nothing feels missing, just yet to be discovered.

The unique staging of “Fefu and Her Friends” makes the unconventional production stand out. While the play could have been staged traditionally with scene changes in one space, moving through Fefu’s house brings additional liveliness and audience engagement to the play. The illusion of movement through different rooms of one space is brilliant, adding a new dimension to the production. It’s also remarkable to witness the ways in which the company cleverly utilizes various spaces throughout the building, including various stages, the lobby and even an area backstage.

The separation of the different pairs of women scattered around the house further allows audiences to focus on each of them in their respective scenes. Fefu and Emma contemplate genitals in the garden, Cindy shares a dream with Christina in the study, Paula discusses relationships with Sue in the kitchen before confronting her past with Cecelia and Julia experiences troubling hallucinations as she tries to sleep. Each glimpse into these characters’ day is raw and witty, and eager anticipation builds during each transition to the next scene.

This repeated movement from one set to another, however, does have one minor downside: Incessant traveling and long pauses do somewhat interfere with the flow and cohesiveness of the play. However, this is easily mended by the audience’s suspension of disbelief and impatience. This unusual play deserves a chance to win over viewers despite its ambitious creative difference, and it won’t take much convincing to do so.

Incredible performances are delivered by the entire cast. Goldfield’s performance as the bubbly, dramatic Emma and Porter’s performance as the traumatized, disoriented Julia is particularly moving. As the comedic relief and the black sheep respectively, the two’s humorous and stirring acting brings additional depth to the emotional high and low points of the play.

An innovative play rewarded for its audaciousness, “Fefu and Her Friends” is a stroke of theatrical genius that is not to be missed.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].