Sunday, June 11, 2006

Fefu and Her Friends (Cleveland Public Theatre)

‘FEFU AND HER FRIENDS’ is theatre at its best at CPT

Maria Irene Fornes, the author of ‘FEFU AND HER FRIENDS,’ now being creatively and impressively staged at Cleveland Public Theatre, is generally recognized as one of the most important feminist writers of the day. When asked to explain her style and what playwriting is Fornes stated, "You are in heaven. It's like a love affair. And everybody else can disapprove of it and think you're an idiot, but when you had it, you never forget it, and that is really what lives inside you..."

Fornes, a poet/playwright of Cuban-American stock, writes poetically, often with an absurdist bent. She makes things appear out of kilter by the use of the ridiculous, the overblown, the abstract. She allows the audience to come to their own conclusions as she asks questions and creates scenes which often have an abstract quality.

‘FEFU AND HER FRIENDS” concerns eight bright, unique women who gather to plan a program for the educational society to which they belong. Along the way, they explore with humor and anguish their relationships with men, other women, and, most importantly, each other. The year is 1935, long before the era of feminism.

The play, as conceived by Fornes, has a fascinating staging concept. The first act takes place in the performance theatre space which is mounted as a living room in an upper class New England home. As the act develops, the women arrive. For the second act, the audience is divided into four groups and is led by a docent to varying parts of the Cleveland Public Theatre complex. The audience finds themselves sequentially in a garden, a study, a bedroom and a kitchen. As each segment is acted, the sounds of the other scenes can be heard in muted tones. It makes for a fascinating’s as though you are eavesdropping on others while experiencing your part of the world. The third act returns us to the living room set.

The staging device was not created by CPT director Raymond Bobgan. When the play was first written it was staged in a New York loft Fornes took advantage of the rooms in the space by dividing the audience and moving them from place-to-place. The device gets the audience involved in the process of the play and makes the attender an active part of the experience.

What does the play mean? A Fornes’ expert states, “Though written in 1977, the message of ‘FEFU AND HER FRIENDS’ remains ever the same: women don't know what to do with feminism. Or rather, they don't know what to do with themselves. It's a strange, unsettling play, not least because the strong women characters are at a loss with each other and with themselves. Without a man to center around, they disintegrate into cattiness and then madness.” That’s one person’s view. Yours might be quite different and that’s what makes the piece so fascinating. You see the actions, you hear the words, you then get to think for yourself about the meaning.

CPT’s production, under Raymond Bobgan, the venue’s new artistic director, is superb. The cast is flawless, the pacing perfect, the devices all work. As in his past CPT works, ‘BLUE SKY TRANSMISSION: A TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD’ and ‘THE CONFESSIONS OF PUNCH AND JUDY,’ this is an impressive production. Theatre goers can only look forward to more and more of his creativity in plays to come.

The actors are a unity cast. No one stands out, they all stand out. Jill Levin, (Fefu), Chris Seibert, Elizabeth Wood, Holly Holsinger, Anne McEvoy, Denise Astorino, Christine McBurney and Maggie Arndt each develops a unique and complete image. Each clearly achieves the character’s self-definition. They don’t act, they are.

The sets all work well. No set designer is listed in the program, but he or she deserves praise. Joan Horvitz’s costumes and Donald Wasson’s hats help set a perfect era-correct feel. Trad Burns lighting aids the illusion.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: CPT’s ‘FEFU AND HER FRIENDS’ is one of the best local productions of the season. Be warned, however, that if you are an advocate of escapist comedy or light musicals, this may not be your cup of tea. The play requires a probing mind to allow the attender to achieve the maximum effect. Those who come to the theatre with that curiosity will be overjoyed by the experience!