Estrogen Rush

Playwright Maria Irene Fornes said in an interview that during a post-production talkback she attended at the American Place Theatre for her in-and-out-of-the-chamber-room drama Fefu and Her Friends, she discovered that the men didn't "get" the play. She wondered whether it had to do with the fact that women are culturally trained to relate to male and female protagonists in stories, whereas men tend to look through women on the stage and screen as if they were giant black holes in outer space. Fefu and Her Friends features an all-female cast and only the occasional reference to offstage men, so there is little for most male viewers to hang their attention on, she claims.

This contention both has its merits and waves a bouquet of generalizations in your face. I spoke with two other female viewers, one an acquaintance, at a Thursday-night production by Echo Theatre, and apparently there are subspecies of women not genetically wired to "get" Fornes. Fefu and Her Friends is the only one of the playwright's works I was remotely familiar with from my fem lit classes in college, and having seen Echo's feverish, once or twice thrilling, but most often embarrassing staging now, my bullshit detector is off the charts. Fornes' pseudo-philosophical stewpot of tortured metaphors, strained whimsy, supernatural and historical terrorism, and rich, college-educated women who have too much idle time on their hands finds mostly gristle bobbing to the surface when you stir it. There are some choice bits, but your jaws ache so much by the close of the play from trying to masticate the heaps of sinew, it all becomes flavorless.

When you step into the Bath House Cultural Center, it all begins so promisingly. The scenic painters and a long list of set crew members headed by designer Bonny Henley were given the bucks to transform the country estate of Fefu, an eccentric and voluble arts patron, into the best set I've seen at this city arts space, and even in other spaces of comparable size. And Fornes did work a refreshing -- if still gimmicky -- feature into the proceedings. Audiences are divided into two or three small groups and led around the Bath House to various well-adorned nooks and crannies to watch scenes in different parts of Fefu's home before they return to the drawing room. It's a nice relief from the usual sedentary experience of theater, and in one case, a bit of a shock to the system, as ticketbuyers are crammed into the tiny bedroom of an invalid experiencing a nightmarish hallucination.

There really is no traditional plot to Fefu and Her Friends -- it's a series of word puzzles tossed back and forth about dreams, nightmares, insanity, human genitalia, civilization, romance, and any number of other topics that sound more profound than they are when dealt with this obliquely. It's true, as the playwright has hinted, that except for patriarchal retribution against one wounded soul and the implied retribution at the end to another rifle-toting character, this play could almost as easily be made up of male characters. Fefu (Cindy Beall) is an arts patron trapped in a twisted marriage who invites a group of friends to her home to prepare for an unnamed philanthropic benefit in which each woman will play a part. The friends include the heavily made-up grande dame of the theater Emma (Beth Bontley); sly, acerbic Cindy (Kelly Lawrence); shy but resentful Paula (Pam Myers-Morgan); and wheelchair-bound, brain-damaged Julia (Linda Marie Ford).

But by the time we return to the drawing room for the final act and have been subjected to Fornes' wildly hit-or-miss dialogues and monologues among eight female college chums, we feel we have been literally chasing the playwright's not clearly conceived set pieces around the Bath House, when the fruitless hunt would've been all mental work if we'd stayed at the main stage. The show's director, David Fisher, who's also artistic director of the Bath House Cultural Center, has said in a press interview that one of his realizations in guiding eight talented, strong-willed actresses was that he knew very little about women. But, presumably, the credentialed Fisher knows something about theater artists, doesn't he? They come with male and female parts. To pretend not to notice this play's glaring weaknesses because you're a man, and not to help two or three actors modulate grand stage presences that begin to fill the room but then elbow one another out of the way is a gender-politics cop-out. Each actress has a wonderful moment or two, but that makes it that much stranger when they pounce on us, Fornes' absurd rush of images firing up (and restraint flying out of) their brains.

Cindy Beall and Beth Bontley compete for Auntie Mame status in the two most florid roles -- Beall ultimately is the more disciplined, and she even shares with Bontley one of the play's best scenes, a discussion about how angels become involved in our sex lives. Which makes the turbaned, hand-fluttering Bontley's interminable monologue near the end all the more baffling. There was not a hint of self-deprecation in Bontley -- and therefore not in Emma, either -- while she delivered what is one of the most jaw-droppingly pretentious pieces about "the primitive urge" that I've seen in ages. If Emma seemed able to laugh at herself more, then we'd relax and try our damnedest to consider what she was saying. But a couple of audience members -- including me -- had to stifle their laughs at this performance-piece rehearsal for the big fete.

The most perfect performance here is Pam Myers-Morgan as the deceptively meek Paula. Myers-Morgan has the most wonderful face -- her big eyes light up with diamond gleams of humor or darken to sticky, pitch pools of bitterness when she, a woman who's had to work for everything she has, casts them over her privileged friends. I don't know that she's the most "womanly" character in this octet of female minds, but she's certainly the toughest, the smartest, the most touchingly human. Pity Linda Marie Ford, for there's nothing human about Julia, a dove-like woman-child who received a mysterious head injury in an "accident" whose mythological imports are way too tangled and ridiculous to recount here. The injury resulted in recurring visions in which a faceless, patriarchal court of judgment inflicts physical torture and reinforces body-image hatred on Julia. Ford is a good enough actor to reveal the sadistic side of these fits being visited upon on a broken soul, but the cruelty seems to be coming as much from the playwright as from the character's phantasmagoric interrogators. Maria Irene Fornes uses Paula as ruthlessly as the force of male-dominated history has.

The lesson of Fefu and Her Friends seems to be that female "madness" is contagious for bold, unconventional, outspoken women because the boys' club has found a way to sneak into their dreams, Nightmare on Elm Street-style, and torment them with their worst innate fears of inferiority. Playwright Fornes finds her way to this intriguing theme on a parade of garish overstatement and pretension, and Echo's uneven cast seems happy to sit on the floats, not so much waving as flailing fiercely at passersby, or the audience. I think it's cowardly to claim that gender limits one's appreciation of this overpraised feminist classic. I didn't feel bashed and besieged and resentful as a man -- in fact, the playwright seems to feel very little, if any, contempt for men, and much more for the limitations that everyone has helped reinforce. I did, however, feel besieged and bamboozled and maybe taken for a bit of a fool as a theatergoer.

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Jimmy Fowler