Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Fefu and Her Friends
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of Hotter Than Egypt


Stacy Ross and Marga Gomez
Photo by Kevin Berne
I may not be the best person to write this review. Not because I don't love theatre or endeavor to approach each performance I attend with an open and focused mind. And it's not because I feel I lack the empathy required to identify with characters onstage or the stories they tell. But as that near-paragon of privilege–white, male, baby boomer (but somewhat mitigated by my queerness)–it can be a challenge to leave behind all the assumptions and prejudices baked into me by virtue of my birth and upbringing. I sincerely believe I can, more often than not, overcome my background and find a way to identify with characters onstage–even when they are of different genders, skin tones, backgrounds, upbringings, social classes, etc. But sometimes, with some shows, I just can't seem to connect with the characters a playwright has created.

So it was with Fefu and Her Friends, which opened Wednesday night at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theatre. The play, by MarĂ­a Irene Fornés, it's a classic (of sorts–widely studied and often critically praised), but one that is rarely performed, in part because of its unusual structure, which requires an audience to divide into groups and move from space to space in order to experience the totality of the play.

ACT, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, has done a laudable job of dividing their spaces to make the experience as smooth and seamless as possible. Scenic designer Tanya Orellana has done excellent work transforming the Strand into an experiential environment: The Rueff (which occupies the level above the main theater) has been divided into two spaces–a lounge where two characters read, study French, and chat, and a gorgeously realized 1930s kitchen; the lobby becomes a garden; and backstage has been turned into a bedroom where the character Julia (Lisa Anne Porter) lies abed and hallucinates. The action begins on the main stage, set as Fefu's living room, then the audience is divided into four groups who are led to each of the other four areas in turn before coming back into the proscenium stage for the conclusion.

Despite the expertise of the actors, designers and crew, Fefu and Her Friends left me feeling cold and confused. Fefu–and her friends–while ostensibly feminists fighting for a cause, express some (to me, at least) very odd views of women. Fefu (Christina Castellanos) herself states "My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are," and that she likes men better than women: "I envy them. I like being like a man. Thinking like a man. Feeling like a man. They are well together. Women are not." Julia comments that men's sexuality is physical, and therefore "pure," while women's sexuality is spiritual and they take those feelings with them "to the afterlife where they corrupt the heavens."

The play is set in 1935, so it is perhaps understandable that Fornés might have her characters espouse views about women that are not as enlightened as one might hope from a feminist playwright, but it nevertheless adds to the overall confusion of the narrative.

Fortunately, MacKinnon has assembled a truly wonderful cast for this production. Stacy Ross, one of my favorite Bay Area actors, shows her usual brilliant acting chops as Paula, and Marga Gomez (whom I haven't always loved) plays Cecilia with an unblinking, unsettling stare that commands not only our attention, but those of her scene partners. But it's Cindy Goldfield (as Emma) who does some of the best work here, especially in the final scene when she rehearses her part in a presentation the women are planning for a charity they support, and delivers her monologue accompanied by delightfully mannered physical movements that had the audience roaring with laughter.

Your mileage may vary, but despite my very sincere attempts to connect to, and empathize with, the characters and their emotions, Fefu and Her Friends left me both befuddled and a little bored.

Fefu and Her Friends runs through May 1, 2022, at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $25-$110. For tickets and information, please visit www.act-sf.org.


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