‘Fefu and Her Friends’ explores complex feminist issues

‘Fefu and Her Friends’ took advantage of the first floor of the Oakley Center, allowing both actors and the audience to move freely. Photo  courtesy of Kate Kiernan.
‘Fefu and Her Friends’ took advantage of the first floor of the Oakley Center, allowing both actors and the audience to move freely. Photo courtesy of Kate Kiernan.

Attending a performance of Fefu and Her Friends was more like being a ghost than an audience member. The location of the show was unique. The play was staged in the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences, but the “stage,” or lack thereof, proved to be even more peculiar than the location. The show, which was performed last Saturday and Sunday, had limited seating. The audience was hidden (from the perspective of the main entrance) behind a wall in the main room of the house and only consisted of about 40 seats. Instead of entering a traditional audience/stage set up, audience members entered the Oakley Center like guests at a house. Cast members were scattered through the rooms, and while they were at times out of sight, the setting gave the sense that there was no offstage.

Cuban American playwright Maria Irene Fornes wrote Fefu and Her Friends in 1977. The show involves alternative staging and an all-female cast. The show was a bold choice by the Department of Theatre and Dance and director Robert Baker-White, professor of theatre. The plot takes place in the course of one evening as Fefu’s friends converge on her New England home in the mid-1930s and touches on seemingly every issue of modern feminism.

The play opens by establishing the main character, Fefu, portrayed by Lizzie Stern ’14. In comparison to the two other characters in the room, Cindy, played by Apurva Tandon ’17 and Christina, played by Rose Warner Miles ’17, Stern gave off a distinctly masculine feeling. Her affect was brazen and harsh compared to the other dainty and reserved women, particularly Miles’s character, who actively mentions that Fefu’s actions make her uncomfortable. Fefu describes how she and her husband, an offstage character like all of the male characters, play a game where she shoots at him from the window of their home with a shotgun without knowing if the gun is filled with blanks or real bullets. She follows this scene with, “I’ve upset you. I didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just the way we are.” Stern brilliantly showed the complexities of this character that at first seems so straight forward but later we see how she is deteriorating.

Fefu and her Friends was also an unbelievably funny show. The hilarity generally came out of superb comedic timing on the part of the whole cast. The entrance of Becca Fallon ’14 as Cecilia, for example, had the audience rolling on the floor even though hardly any words were said.

There was no fourth wall in this performance, and as I said before, the physical location of the audience often accomplished this. Even when the audience was at its most removed, sitting in their seats, characters walked in and out of the scenes with no consciousness of their viewers. Lines were started in and out of view, action occurred offstage, characters entered from all sides of the room. Even a moment when no characters were in sight did not feel awkward because you knew that the story was just continuing elsewhere in the house. The “stage” extended across the entire first floor of the Oakley Center, including the porch, and where the audience was in relation to the characters did not seem to be a factor. The best way to describe it was feeling like a ghost, like an invisible observer.

This sensation was most pronounced early in the show when the audience was taken from their seats and broken into four small groups of less than ten people. These groups then rotated through four scenes throughout the house with different characters. In these scenes, the audience literally sat next to the characters as new details and personality characteristics are revealed. The effect of this was jarring and took some getting used to. It also felt invasive, as the characters shared intimate moments with each other, or alone. This was the closest I have ever felt theater come to reading; that sense of being an omniscient narrator, seeing and hearing everything at once.

The most shocking of these scenes was with the character Julia, played by Sophie Montgomery ’14. Julia is paralyzed from the waist down and has hallucinations about a past trauma related to men beating her into submission and forcing her to repeat a mantra of the inferiority of women over and over. Her solo scene exposed the audience to one of these hallucinations, alone, in her bedroom and the effect was chilling. Montgomery’s portrayal of Julia in this scene, and in the play more largely, was one of the greatest portrayals of insanity I have ever seen. She utterly transformed into the character and never faltered.

This short review is not nearly long enough to do this show justice. Its thematic complexities run deep, as the women grapple with nearly all of the problems faced by modern women in a masculine world, including problems of fear and control within marriage, homosexuality, class issues and agency as introduced by the other characters in the show including Paula, played by Sarah Pier ’16 and Sue, played by Cat Dickinson ’17. The setting and staging of the show were also a huge component in this show as detail was essential. Settings designer David Morris and costume designer Deborah Brothers did a fantastic job of transforming the Oakley Center into a 1935 home to make the immersion experience feel as real as possible.

The real feat of this show can be expressed in the words of the character Emma, played by Paige Peterkin ’15. Peterkin’s character had the strongest personality in the group next to Fefu, and her confident theatricality also stood out in the midst of the other more soft-spoken characters. At one point Peterkin says, “Life is theater. Theater is life.” No other line better describes the success of this play.