Manitoba·REVIEW

REVIEW: Fefu and Her Friends confounding, uneven - but still relevant

It may be fitting that the Edwardian elegance of Ralph Connor House - where Sarasvati Productions is staging Fefu and Her Friends - nearly steals the show.

Sarasvati Productions’ Fefu and Her Friends runs at Ralph Connor House (54 West Gate) until June 1.

Julia Arkos as Cecilia and Nan Fewchuk as Paula in Fefu and her Friends (Janet Shum)

It may be fitting that the Edwardian elegance of Ralph Connor House - where Sarasvati Productions is staging Fefu and Her Friends - nearly steals the show.

The stunning house, built in 1914, is in some ways a relic of the past - a sprawling mansion constructed for a single family. But it’s found new life in more recent years as a meeting place and event centre.

So is the revolting notion that women are lesser creatures truly her belief, or an attempt to be as revolting as possible?- Joff Schmidt

And the 1977 play, by Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, in some ways feels like it addresses the issues of an earlier generation. But if you scratch beneath the surface, while it can be confounding at points, it still has much to say about gender issues.

Set in 1935, the play takes place in the home of Stephanie “Fefu” Beckmann, who has gathered her friends to prepare for a philanthropical fundraising presentation. But what evolves in the relatively plotless, and sometimes absurdist, piece is an exploration of how these women relate to each other, and what it means to be a woman. “My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are,” Fefu (Megan McArton) tells a shocked Christina (Brenda McLean) and more amused Cindy (Tracy Penner). “And it’s true,” she concludes.

But is Fefu serious, or attempting to be scandalous? She goes on to describe her fascination with that which is revolting. So is the revolting notion that women are lesser creatures truly her belief, or an attempt to be as revolting as possible?

The issue is explored further with the introduction of Julia (Kelci Stephenson), who uses a wheelchair after a hunting accident - in which no bullet struck her, but a wound nonetheless mysteriously appeared on her head. In a horrifying - and indeed, revolting - monologue, Julia describes being abducted by men who beat her, broke her will, and have convinced her that only men are human - and women are a sub-species. Is this insanity, or the result of one of the seizures Julia suffers, or some terrifying reality? This is left to the audience to decide.
Megan McArton, Julia Arkos, Tracey Nepinak, Brenda McLean, Elena Anciro, Tracy Penner, Nan Fewchuk; Kelci Stephenson in front row (Janet Shum)

The play’s structure, too, leaves the audience to piece much together. The play’s second act consists of four scenes performed simultaneously in different rooms of the house. The audience, split into four groups, moves through (and outside) the house to see each scene - so you’ll see them all, but each group sees them in a different order. Though the movement from location to location was a bit choppy on opening night, the overall effect is intriguing - truth, and reality, become subjective here.

The performances in the eight ­woman cast (men are mentioned, but unseen in Fefu) in Hope McIntyre’s production are strong across the board (Elena Anciro, Julia Arkos, Nan Fewchuk, and Tracey Nepinak round out the cast). Stephenson is the stand­out, though, in the central role of Julia ­ her monologue is as compelling as it is disturbing.

The cast, and production, do struggle with some of the play’s more problematic - and perhaps dated - elements. Fornes’ script sometimes strays into long, philosophical tangents which can become tiresome, and at times left me puzzling at what point Fornes is trying to make. It also makes the characters occasionally seeming more like ideological mouthpieces than people.

At the same time, it also achieves moments of beauty, and heartbreak, and humour, and poetry in its writing - in particular with an ending which I won’t give away here, but which I will say leaves the audience with a haunting image.
Kelci Stephenson as Julia and Megan McArton as Fefu (Janet Shum)

And it may seem the play’s central themes are something we’re long past - surely we no longer consider women lesser or “loathsome” creatures. And yet we still live in a country where a woman earns 87 cents for every dollar a man does, in a province that has never elected a woman as premier, and a nation that has had a female prime minister for less than 20 weeks of its near 147-year history. And this is considered one of the best countries in the world for a woman to live.

Fefu and Her Friends is certainly not easily digestible theatre, and it’s an uneven play - but it is an intriguing type of theatre we rarely see outside the Fringe, and still speaks, at points powerfully, to the world we live in.

So like Ralph Connor House, the play may seem as though it comes from another time. But as we still need that house, we may still need Fefu and Her Friends.

Sarasvati Productions’ Fefu and Her Friends runs at Ralph Connor House (54 West Gate) until June 1.