Women take and make the stage in ‘Fefu and Her Friends’

A.C.T.’s Pam MacKinnon gathers Bay Area talent for revival of groundbreaking 1977 play

American Conservatory Theatre is using the entirety of its Strand Theater facility to open a unique and experiential event this month. First produced Off-Broadway in 1977, “Fefu and Her Friends” is a highly regarded play by María Irene Fornés, described by Jesse Green of the New York Times as “more often read and studied than seen” in his review of a rare 2019 revival.

There’s a reason for that. The play has three distinct sections, and the middle one requires four different scenes to be performed simultaneously — just like in real life! — for an audience that has been clustered into four groups. This means four distinct but reasonably adjacent performing spaces that allow the audience pods to move around with ease and witness all four sequences before returning to the proscenium stage for the conclusion.

“We’re taking this opportunity to put these four spaces in different locations all over the Strand,” says Pam MacKinnon, director of the play and artistic director of A.C.T. since 2018.

“So, it’s not just the normal experience of passively listening to a play.” She adds, possibly as a reassurance, “None of it is scary. There are elevators!”

“María Irene Fornés was a prolific playwright as well as a director and an educator,” MacKinnon continues, “and she has a big before and after in the American theater that I don’t think has registered beyond a tighter circle. She also had a huge, huge influence as a teacher of playwriting.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning writers like Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard and Edward Albee agree, citing Fornés as an inspiration and influence.

Another aspect of the play abnormal for a typical theatergoing experience is that the cast of eight is all women. As the play’s title tells you, this is time spent with Fefu and her friends, and MacKinnon has gathered an ensemble of what can only be described as leaders of the Bay Area talent bank.

This rare occurence generated expressions of joy, frustration and hope in a roundtable discussion with MacKinnon and company early in the rehearsal process.

“I think the order in which the audience sees the four scenes will create different experiences because things are going to unfold in a different pattern for each one,” suggests Lisa Anne Porter, actor and frequent director and dialogue coach. “I imagine coming into the third act, every group will be in a slightly different place based on the last echo they’ve heard.”

Catherine Castellanos, a regular on Bay Area stages and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, plays the eponymous Fefu and concurs. “If your final scene is the bedroom scene, where a character is having a hallucination, a very buzzy scene — that’s the lens with which you step back in to watch part three and that’s a very different experience perhaps than the garden scene between Fefu and Emma.”

“I think, as an actor, it’s really fun to get to repeat something four times (in one performance),” offers Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, whose credits include work with Aurora Theatre Company and the African-American Shakespeare Company.

“Eight on matinee day,” adds actor-director Cindy Goldfield with a rueful smile, having just completed work on “A Grand Night for Singing” at 42nd Street Moon, which overlapped rehearsals for “Fefu.”

“I think it’s like an invitation for myself as an artist to build a different type of muscle in stamina and then to play,” says Sarita Ocón, who plays Christina. “How to stay ever-present given all the factors coming into each room each time.”

“It feels very fly on the wall,” adds Mbele-Mbong, “because even though there is something untraditional about the movement, the scenes themselves still have that fourth wall.”

Shakespeare is a prevalent thread across these actors’ resumes. Though, despite a handful of compelling female characters, the Bard has proven no panacea for women over four centuries.

“So are you the queen or are you her servant?” asks Stacy Ross in a velvet-over-steel voice dripping with hauteur.

“Then you have a 45-minute break,” adds Castellanos. “We’re in the kick-off, and then we have a break until Act V.”

“Where we all shut up anyway,” adds Ross for the rimshot.

That dearth resulted in the birth of many all-female Shakespeare companies like A Woman’s Will and the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, where many in the “Fefu” cast have credits.

“It was a game-changer for me,” says Porter of experiencing titles like “Hamlet” or “Richard III” with all women. “I didn’t even know what was changing until I was in the room and realized that I could just go and be in my body.”

“I was just thinking about that,” adds Mbele-Mbong. “It didn’t occur to me when I was with Woman’s Will. There is something super fun and exciting to playing Count Orsino, but here all of the characters are actually women. We can be all be women in this space, and that’s kind of a different thing.”

“My origins with an all-women cast started with Lilith Theatre in the Bay Area,” says actor-playwright-comedian Marga Gomez. “I was 20, and I wound up on tour in Europe with them, and it was deliberately a feminist theater. It was an amazing way to start earning my living as a performer.”

“Fefu and Her Friends” is set at a summer home in New England in 1935, placing it within the generation of women’s suffrage, though for white women. The play was first produced in 1977, during the women’s liberation movement. Today, we live in the tension of #MeToo, a still unratified Equal Rights Amendment and shifting gender roles and identities. These juxtapositions, the near-absence of men in the creative process and the artists’ lived experiences have all informed the rehearsal process.

“We spent many long days talking about the state of the feminine, the state of gender politics and the state of privilege,” says Goldfield. “I think that there are huge resounding echoes from each of those time periods. It’s a room full of women here — the performers, the stage managers, the staff, everybody. Then, every once in a while, a man walks in and at least I feel it. I’m aware of what we’re saying and how it lands. That is my internalized patriarchy speaking. I’m don’t want to ruffle the fancy feathers of the men. Still, their absence and then occasional presence heightens the awareness of how women behave when they’re out of the male gaze.”

“The characters are having large conversations, but the soapboxes are not about feminism. They’re about education and other things,” adds Mbele-Mbong.

“It’s a bold act that we’re putting eight women on the stage and that it is a Fornés play,” observes Ocón. “I think it is a challenge to steer audiences away from compartmentalizing women. … It is my hope that when our audiences come, they will see bold, brave, courageous, thought-provoking humans. See our human essence on stage.”

“I think part of the muscle of this play is it’s not asking for any permission,” says Castellanos, almost in counterpoint.

“I believe in putting complicated human stories on the stage,” MacKinnon adds, “and Fornés was someone who, as both writer and director, challenged herself each time up to bat, to play with form, but also to really obey her voice.”

IF YOU GO:

“Fefu and her Friends” by María Irene Fornés

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays–Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sundays. Closes May 1.

Tickets: $25 to $110

Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

Sarita Ocón (Christina) and Catherine Castellanos (Fefu) in María Irene Fornés’s “Fefu and Her Friends” at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Sarita Ocón (Christina) and Catherine Castellanos (Fefu) in María Irene Fornés’s “Fefu and Her Friends” at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

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