With 'Fefu and Her Friends,' ACT Throws an Exhilarating, Challenging Affair

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One woman sits on a couch while another woman stands behind it in a party scene from a play.
Sarita Ocón and Catherine Castellanos in 'Fefu and Her Friends,' by María Irene Fornés at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

Parties can be quite challenging experiences depending on why you’re there and who else shows up. Some parties are emphatically casual affairs: loose assemblages of friends and acquaintances who gather periodically to reaffirm their connection over a few rounds. But some parties have higher stakes.

In Fefu and Her Friends, written in 1977 by María Irene Fornés, part of the experience is determining what kind of party you’ve inadvertently stumbled into, and what, eventually, you’ll gain by being there.

Emma (Cindy Goldfield) practices her fundraising speech for the ensemble as Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) looks on in 'Fefu and Her Friends' by María Irene Fornés. (Kevin Berne)

In A.C.T.’s version, running through May 1 at the Strand Theater, and directed by Pam MacKinnon, the party is slow to build. Guests appear in staggered succession, wandering into Fefu’s lavishly appointed living room and helping themselves from her bar cart (scenic design by Tanya Orellana, props by Janice Garten). Fefu, played by Catherine Castellanos, busies herself with fidgety tasks, from arranging flowers to fixing her toilet.

Fefu is the kind of host who can make or break a party just by being herself. Her energy is at turns nervous and imperious. She keeps her guests on edge by acting unpredictably and dominating the conversation even as she confesses privately, in a moment of unexpected fragility, that she is in “constant pain.” Her outfit—a riot of clashing patterns designed by Sarita Fellow—underscores the unquiet machinery of her mind. She seems always two steps ahead of her guests, who scramble to keep up even as they might recoil from her methods.

It takes breaking the audience and the ensemble up into smaller groups who literally disperse themselves throughout the building to break free from the magnetic pull of Fefu’s dominance. From the intimate confines of the top floor Rueff performance space to the ground floor lobby, the action and the audience travel from room to room, eavesdropping on the conversations that occur between Fefu’s guests when she’s out of earshot and cannot judge their words.

Jennifer Ikeda and Sarita Ocón read quietly in the Rueff performance space during 'Fefu and Her Friends' at A.C.T. (Kevin Berne)

Reading together in a quiet room, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) discuss the world’s dangers, of which Fefu is just one. In the kitchen, Paula (Stacy Ross) and Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) parse out an elaborate equation for failed love, a conversation unexpectedly disrupted by the entrance of Paula’s former lover Cecilia (Marga Gomez), all rakish charm and self-possession.

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Meanwhile, alone in a dim bedroom, Julia (Lisa Anne Porter) converses alone with the violent hallucinations that threaten her sanity. Visibly traumatized by her visions, she speaks ominously of the heaviness of her own entrails, and the impossible standards of womanhood as determined by men.

Of all the guests, Julia is both the biggest threat to Fefu’s need to control her environment, as well as the most affected. When Julia declares her hallucinations to be “contagious” Fefu unexpectedly agrees with her, and even appears to suffer a hallucination involving Julia on her own. If Castellanos as Fefu embodies the crackling energy of a “live wire,” Porter as Julia represents an actual hazard—both as a sufferer and as a conduit. In her solo scene she lies on her bed surrounded by a circle of watchful audience, as if on display. Resembling, in effect, a precious work of art—or a corpse.

The audience watches a scene from 'Fefu and Her Friends.' (Kevin Berne)

Producing this little-staged classic of experimental theater gives A.C.T. a chance to stretch its artistic muscles in some exhilarating directions, interrogating the feminine experience directly through the entrails, the genitals, and all of the messy, complicated, “revolting” bits that would normally remain unnoticed or at least unremarked upon. At the same time, it's a production that reveals the layers of artifice typical to the stage and lays them out in the open.

As an attempt at experiential theater goes, A.C.T.’s Fefu is not without some stylistic missteps and dropped beats. But the overall ambience is very much that of a party full of big personalities impossible to tear your attention away from, even as you wait quietly in the corner to witness their inevitable meltdowns.

A.C.T.’s Fefu and Her Friends invites its audience to consider the intricacies of how society is mirrored through even the most banal social interactions—a reminder of the ways in which we live within a complex Venn diagram of overlapping worlds and contradictory norms. This won’t be the kind of party you walk away from with a new best friend, or even a plate of leftovers for the road. But with its powerhouse cast (and a superlative playlist compiled by sound designer Jake Rodriguez) it’s a party you won’t soon forget. Despite—or perhaps because of—the discomfort it provokes.

'Fefu and Her Friends' plays through May 1 at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. Details here.