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.
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.
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.