The one thing I cannot do is pretend to understand a ton about the greatness of María Irene Fornés. Without a doubt, there is genius in the strokes of the Cuban-American master’s mighty pen, a playwright who is equal parts aura and author. The weight of each calculated word builds ideas that captivate. Yet the work can also feel distant, isolating even.
That may sound like a slight, but it’s not. A discovery I made while witnessing the enthralling production of “Fefu and Her Friends” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater is that wanting something out of this timeless work requires one to do work. It is clarity that didn’t arrive immediately, no matter how many alluring conversations I had in the Strand Theater’s modern lobby discussing the show after its conclusion. Fornés can bring a gathering of theatre folk to a state of euphoric, beguiling confoundment with sublime glee.
Fornés’ greatness was on full display in the American Conservatory Theater’s staggered and staggering production, a play that was given full star treatment based on the illustrious pedigree of the cast. Many of the moments that make up such an immersive experience have a pulsing set of demands, moments that reek of urgency.
Despite the fact that Fornés debuted this play in 1977, how it speaks on behalf of women is where the timeliness comes in. Each of the four spaces that audiences are guided towards via the theatre’s ushers reveals itself to be a place where each of the women has a harrowing aspect of their existence to deal with.
The play’s power is within the sphere of smashing patriarchal gender norms. It is not beneath Fefu to fix a toilet, shoot a gun, or engage in a hilarious conversation about genitals with Emma (Cindy Goldfield). Everyone has them, so why so coy about that topic?
Leading the charge on this dynamic band of feminist significants is Fefu herself, played with a pulsating tone and unconfined fluidity by Catherine Castellanos. What is most powerful about this turn is the way such a grand presence hovers mightily over spaces other characters inhabit. Is Fefu just a strange and eccentric woman who wields a weapon as a nefarious con? What darkness or guilt inhabits her psyche? Fefu proffers her visitors a most unique weapon, and as time marches forward, Fefu spirals and careens. She is one who brings ambience to rooms she never occupies.
In acts one and three, the more traditional theatrical conventions inhabit the space, establishing and concluding scenes being placed onto the Strand’s traditional proscenium. Yet traveling and taking in each of Fefu’s various guest rooms in random order illuminates a kind of theatrical magic, presenting the audience with the gift of immersion, revealing what a thrill theatre can be at its best and most innovative.
Director Pam MacKinnon takes great pains to accentuate each of the details that make up four unique stories. A kitchen, study, garden and bedroom are the lairs of the lonely, the lustful and the leisurely. The scenic design by Tanya Orellana and the many period props by Janice Garten are remarkably detailed, with dottings that make up moments which thread all the stories together. Soup, croquet and lemonade are the vehicles that lead the audience to a vague destination.
Christina (Sarita Ocón) and Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) are the most quizzical of the group, clearly thrown by Fefu’s strange hobby of shooting blank bullets toward her husband. In the earliest moments of Fefu’s introduction to the masses, both exchange stupefied looks and share their valid concerns over what’s in store at this gathering, which will see an assorted group of women gather to work on a fundraiser.
While Christina and Cindy engage each other over the potential peril of an association with Fefu, two scenes are head and shoulders in their own cosmos. Just take in the succulence between Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Sue, and Stacy Ross as her lover Paula. Not to be outdone, Paula’s former lover Cecilia (Marga Gomez) enters with disruption. Everything about this scene is magic – the monotony of metaphor as Sue prepares a dull soup, the Meisnerian listening of Gomez, and the absolute masterclass in pacing and pathos that is Ross’ entire being.
In another piece of power, Lisa Ann Porter pounds a through line of threat towards Fefu from the moment she fights her hallucinations (assisted mightily by the sublime soundscape of Jake Rodriguez, whose playlist is more like a slaylist). A living, pulsing set of breaths that build mightily to a harrowing end are an exercise in Porter’s ability to reach a divine level of transcendence.
Despite the nature of the play that can be strange yet wonderful, and a denouement that didn’t always lock into maximum engagement (hard to maintain if the four nine-minute scenes exuded such thrills and chills), “Fefu and Her Friends” is a play that one can love if they have time to parse out its many layers well after the show has concluded. The end of the play is beginning of its engagement, and all those who accept the challenge accept a significant deal – we have the power to bring one of Fefu’s rooms into our own world.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theater presents “Fefu and Her Friends”
Written by María Irene Fornés
Directed by Pam MacKinnon
The Word: A production that is wondrous strange, with a stellar cast of some of the best performers the Bay Area has to offer.
Through May 1
The Strand Theater
1127 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Running time: two hours, 30 minutes with one intermission
Tickets range from $25 – $110
For tickets, call (415) 849-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org