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Theatergoers Embark on an Epic Onstage Odyssey at the Odyssey

Ed Rampell: What really sets Fefu apart from most other stage productions is that members of the audience must leave their assigned seats and embark on an onstage odyssey in the Odyssey Theatre’s three-stage complex.
FEFU AND HER FRIENDS

Sandy Duarte, Sydney A. Mason, Dominique Corona (Photos by Enci Box)

FEFU AND HER FRIENDSREVIEW

Originality is among those attributes I admire and cherish most in the arts, and Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends is very singular on several fronts. First of all, the Cuban-born, Obie Award-winning playwright’s characters are all female, and this is far less common than mixed gender or all male casts, such as in Jason Miller’s That Championship Season, first produced in the 1970s, as was Fefu. This casting and the fact that the bard is a woman indelibly stamps Fefu with a distinctly feminist point of view. As such, Fefu deals with gender issues, sexual politics, as well as with same sex relationships.

What really sets Fefu apart from most other stage productions is that members of the audience must leave their assigned seats and embark on an onstage odyssey in the Odyssey Theatre’s three-stage complex.

But what really sets Fefu apart from most other stage productions is that members of the audience are, through color coded tickets, divided into four groups who, at some point in Act I must leave their assigned seats and embark on an onstage odyssey in the Odyssey Theatre’s three-stage complex and, guided by actresses and/or stagehands, trek to various other spaces where different portions of Fornes’ offbeat drama are presented. The action simultaneously unfolds with different sets of thesps for the four different aud groups in one of the Odyssey’s other theatrical venues, as well as in dressing rooms especially converted for Fefu. In the different areas one could sometimes overhear the action transpiring in the space next door.

One of these chambers featured Julia (award-winning actress Sandy Duarte), who is wounded, disabled (hmm, or is she???) and out of her wheelchair, alternately lunging at onlookers ensconced on benches and writhing on a bed in her undergarments. Julia’s wounds and handicaps may be metaphors for the plight and circumstances of women in patriarchal, sexist society. Call it psychic paralysis.

FEFU AND HER FRIENDS

Tanya Gorlow and Tiffany Cole

Some may find this elaborate stagecraft and peregrinations to be pretentious contrivances but I enjoyed them (perhaps because I’m a contrived person full of pretence?). The only time I recall experiencing something similar to this theatrical wayfaring was in The Manor: Murder and Madness at Greystone, which takes place in the actual Tudor Revival mansion of the Doheny family above Beverly Hills where a real life homicide occurred in 1929. (Manor is periodically revived and will return in late 2020.) But of course, Fefu does not have the documentary pedigree of Manor - even if both involve shootings. In any case, the playhouse’s pilgrimages are only in the first act - in Act II ticket buyers remain in their seats like in any traditional thee-a-tuh with a proscenium arch and fourth wall intact.

From time to time Fefu (Tiffany Cole, who previously played Electra and appears in the Sharknado flick) takes aim at her husband with a rifle, claiming not to know whether or not it’s loaded, and fires a shot at Phillip (an offstage presence). Fefu also has a penchant for making outrageous remarks. Towards the top of this two-acter Fefu declares: “Women are loathsome!” (I humbly beg to differ.) This is one of her endless against-the-grain pronouncements intended to shock her seven friends, who are guests at Fefu’s house in New England, 1935. (BTW, there was absolutely nothing whatsoever in this production that indicated this story was supposed to be happening in either New England or the mid-thirties.)

Some may consider Fefu to be an exceedingly bold woman, but this character came across to me like one of these individuals who strike an outré pose and develop a shocking persona mainly to get attention and more to the point, in a deliberate effort to impress others. Often, Fefu doesn’t speak like we mere mortals do - she makes pronouncements, as if from on high.

FEFU AND HER FRIENDS

Cynthia Yelle, Sydney A. Mason, Jennifer Lee Laks

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Of course, Fefu is masking her inner conflicts and insecurities which have to do with gender roles and rules in a sexist society dominated by the male of the species. (No wonder she wants to shoot her hubby.) But Fefu’s outlandish behavior seems like she’s acting out a part (that is the character, not Ms. Cole, who is, one presumes, indeed acting) and as such wears out her welcome quickly and becomes very tiresome. Christina (the winsome, charming Dominique Corona) spends much of the play trying to figure out whether or not she likes her hostess, and I suspect viewers will encounter a similar conundrum.

Fefu and Her Friends is the second in a series of plays celebrating the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th anniversary, by presenting the “Circa ’69” season, with revivals “of significant and adventurous plays that premiered around the time of the Odyssey’s 1969 inception,” by artistic director Ron Sossi, according to a press release.

Denise Blasor (who plays Doña Rosa in the great FX TV series Snowfall) skillfully directs her ensemble, and pulling double duty as their costume designer (along with Josh LaCour) similarly garbs her gifted cast, in particular the colorful raiment of Sydney A. Mason, who was also in Odyssey’s noteworthy 2018 production of Lysistrata Unbound. Frederica Nascimento does yeoman’s (yeowoman’s?) work as the scenic designer, presumably working her magic on this complicated production’s multiple sets in multiple spaces.

With its cast of eight, Fefu is well-acted and not without humor - although it is more of the ironic, sardonic sort than the laugh-out-loud brand found in most comedies. The play definitely has a surreal vibe, sort of like a Luis Bunuel movie set on the stage - that is, if Bunuel was female. This is theater for thinkers, for more adventurous theatergoers with a taste for originality and the absurd, concerned with subjects such as feminist theory, sexism, lesbianism, patriarchy - and trekking. Bring your thinking caps - and New Balance walking shoes.

FEFU AND HER FRIENDS

Fefu and Her Friends plays on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. - plus on two Wednesdays, Sept. 11 and Sept. 25; plus on one Thursday, Sept. 19, all at 8:00 p.m., through Sept. 29 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. For more info: (310)477-2055, ext. 2; www.OdysseyTheatre.com.

The Odyssey Theatre is presenting a special screening of Michelle Memran’s documentary The Rest I Make Up about Maria Irene Fornes, the playwright of Fefu and Her Friends, at 7:00 p.m., Sept. 18.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/reviewer and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”. Rampell is co-presenting the 400TH Anniversary Anti-Slavery Cinema Commemoration 12:00 - 10:00 p.m., August 25at the L.A. Workers Center.