'A long time coming' for masterwork no one has seen
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'A long time coming' for masterwork no one has seen
Inspirational images for the set design of “Fefu and Her Friends,” on the wall of rehearsal space for the production, in New York, Oct. 31, 2019. Perhaps the finest work of the Cuban-American director and playwright María Irene Fornés, is finally getting a New York revival. Sasha Arutyunova/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Cuban-American director and playwright María Irene Fornés died last fall, the New York Times obituary referred to her as “an underrecognized genius.” Now, what is perhaps her finest work, “Fefu and Her Friends,” can be seen at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Revolutionary in its form and daring in its philosophy, “Fefu,” from 1977, hasn’t played off-Broadway since its debut. Think of it as the masterpiece no one has seen.

“It’s been a long time coming, for real,” said Lileana Blain-Cruz, the director. She fell for the play a decade ago, in graduate school, attracted by its humor, its mystery, its beauty. She spent years wondering, “Why is nobody doing this?” she said.

Set in 1935, at a well-appointed country house peopled with well-appointed women, the play seems, on its gleaming surface, to be straightforward. The set, with its sofa, coffee table and upstage piano is gallingly simple. Superficially, so is the plot: Stephany, nicknamed Fefu, has gathered seven friends together to plan a school fundraiser. From noon until dusk they gossip and drink, dance and rehearse, eat chocolates and aim a double-barreled shotgun.

The shotgun is loaded with blanks. Probably.

But after the first act, the audience divides into four groups, each assigned to a different location — a study, a kitchen, a bedroom, a lawn. The groups watch four scenes in different order, an act of immersive theater, or promenade theater, dreamed up decades before those before those styles became popular.

And the fundraiser plot is simply cover for vital, unanswerable questions about desire and fear and trauma, about how to be a person, especially a female person, about how to survive. It is a play about what happens when women talk to each other.

Marc Robinson, a professor of theater studies at Yale University and the author of “The Theater of Maria Irene Fornés,” called it “an incredible work. Its challenges are still formidable in the best, most stimulating way.”

On Halloween morning, I slipped into a dance studio in Midtown West to watch a rehearsal for the show, which is now in previews and opens Nov. 24. (Like a lot of “Fefu” devotees, I discovered the play in college. I’ve never seen it either.) Under overbright lights, the cast and some of the creative team made a circle for a warm-up — bending, arcing, sticking their tongues out like statues of Kali while an Olga Guillot bolero poured from the speakers and Blain-Cruz, in a cropped blouse and paradise pink lipstick, shouted encouragement.

Once warm, the actors arranged themselves on and around a rehearsal sofa, clutching empty cocktail glasses and nibbling the vegan macaroons an assistant stage manager had baked. Nearly everyone was a woman, nearly everyone was a person of color. Off-Broadway, that’s still unusual. So was the mood that day, a giddy mix of excitement, risk and dedication to a shared endeavor.

I had spent a lot of that week speaking to playwrights and professors, people like me who love the play, often obsessively, but have never seen it performed professionally. “Fefu” remains a campus favorite and regional productions turn up, like a well-received production this past summer at Los Angeles’ Odyssey Theater, but they’re rare.

Jeremy O. Harris, the author of “Slave Play,” saw a college production as an undergraduate at DePaul University. “I remember being so enthralled by the language and the sense of motion inside of the piece,” he said by telephone. Recently, he and the playwright Will Arbery (“Heroes of the Fourth Turning”) bonded over their “Fefu” fandom.

“This play is stapled to my soul and it hurts,” Arbery wrote in an email, “I don’t have to understand it: I believe it.”

When the playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury adopted a cat, she named her “Fefu.” (The cat has since had kittens — the friends.) She read the play in college “and was immediately completely obsessed with it,” she said. “It’s the first play I had read that was about women in a very deep and considered way.”

The structure of “Fefu” informs — unconsciously, Drury said — her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview,” a play that also emphasizes subjective experience by asking audiences to move within the theater.

If “Fefu” can inspire this reverence, why do so few theaters stage it? Yes, Fornés, like her peer Adrienne Kennedy, has a reputation, not always deserved, for difficulty. (This never stopped Beckett or Pinter.) The language can skew arch or formal — Fefu opens the play saying, “My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are.” Some moments tilt toward surrealism. And like ice or a fish or a rain-slicked path, “Fefu” is slippery, its gist ever sliding away.

Fornés herself said that she was dealing less with story or plot than with “the mechanics of the mind, some kind of spiritual survival, a process of thought.” Which exasperated critics like Walter Kerr. “If I lasted as long as I did,” he wrote in his 1978 Times review, “it was because I kept hoping during my constant journeyings that I might find a play in the very next room.”

But that slipperiness is also a strength, an acknowledgment that the person across the aisle might see the play differently than I do (if we’re lucky enough to see it at all), that we might approach it with discrete values, experiences and concerns. “What I love about María Irene Fornés, her plays don’t dictate to you what they’re about,” Harris told me. The meaning is up to us.

Inscrutability doesn’t rattle Blain-Cruz, who has always been drawn, she said, to “dense, weird, fun, strange worlds.” (She’s also directed plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, Alice Birch and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, so that checks out.) Besides, worrying too much about the enigmas of “Fefu” risks ignoring the elements that make it so pleasurable — its charm, its humor, its sense of play.

“Once you hear it in conversation, all of a sudden it becomes alive and understandable,” Blain-Cruz said. That was true in the rehearsal room, even as the women were working through a dense passage drawn from a 1917 handbook on theater in education.

For Blain-Cruz, the play is “about discovering the many worlds that exist within eight different women and what happens when they orbit and bounce against each other.” Fornés went back and forth about whether she considered the play feminist, but she did say, unequivocally, “The play is about women.”

I had begun to wonder if that was what made the play so subversive, so apparently unstageable. Not its five separate sets, not its ethical inquiry, but the fact that it invites these women over and encourages them to speak to each other.

Two days after I visited rehearsal, I called Jeffrey Horowitz, founder of Theater for a New Audience, the producers of this revival, and I asked him why the play was so rarely performed. “I don’t know,” he said. A few minutes after our call ended, my phone rang. Horowitz again. He had an answer. “I think it’s because she writes about women,” he said.

Robinson had told me something similar. “It’s important not to overlook questions of bias,” he said.

That day in rehearsal, thinking about how good and weird it felt to see so many women onstage, I asked Blain-Cruz if that aspect of the play still felt radical.

“Deeply,” she said, laughing the way you laugh when you could just as easily scream or cry. “Deeply. Oh, look — eight women in a room. Explosive!”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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