Sur­real play has harsh re­al­i­ties at its core

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

IN set­ting her 1977 fem­i­nist play Fefu and Her Friends in 1935, Amer­i­can play­wright Maria Irene Fornes an­tic­i­pated the en­dur­ing prob­lems women will have nav­i­gat­ing a mas­cu­line world in 2014. The best known work of Fornes, a cult fig­ure in avant-garde theatre, re­ceived its Win­nipeg de­but Thurs­day night by Sarasváti Pro­duc­tions and touched on ev­ery is­sue of mod­ern fem­i­nism. It sug­gests women con­tinue to re­press them­selves to do what they need to fit in or be suc­cess­ful. The al­most two-hour drama is in­tensely cere­bral, lay­ered with philo­soph­i­cal pon­der­ings that are of­ten dif­fi­cult to fol­low when it slips into the sur­real.

It’s best not to even try, as char­ac­ter trumps plot in Fefu and Her Friends. Fornes, through able di­rec­tor Hope McIn­tyre, is more in­tent on be­ing thought-pro­vok­ing than en­ter­tain­ing. Fefu, the evening’s lead do-gooder, ad­vises any con­fused spec­ta­tor to ap­proach her work as “just some­thing to think about.” A lot is asked of the au­di­ence, not only by the de­mand­ing text but by ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion. The max­i­mum au­di­ence of 60 moves among five set­tings in stately Ralph Con­nor House (54 West Gate), a her­itage home that is an ideal stand-in for Fefu’s splen­did coun­try es­tate. The prom­e­nade is a pleas­ant nov­elty but all the traips­ing up and down stairs re­peat­edly pulls pa­trons out of the world of the play. The ti­tle char­ac­ter sets the tone im­me­di­ately, declar­ing, “My hus­band mar­ried me to have a con­stant Ex­change ear­lier this year, is force­fully con­vinc­ing in con­vey­ing the way Ju­lia’s in­ner demons have left her more psy­cho­log­i­cally crip­pled then phys­i­cally dis­abled. The rest of the women present dif­fer­ent tor­ments and dis­ap­point­ments that stem from liv­ing in a pa­tri­archy in the 1930s. Most fear be­ing silenced, or sent on a trip to a psy­chi­a­trist. Oth­ers talk about how so­ci­ety has stacked the deck against strong women. Paula (Nan Fewchuk), who has recorded in her jour­nal that love af­fairs last seven years and three months, is bit­ter about be­ing unloved and with­out means. Christina (Brenda McLean) is is a scaredy cat who buries her emo­tions, while Cindy (Tracy Pen­ner) puts up a happy fa­cade that masks her fear at what goes on around her. Emma is the dreamer and op­ti­mist, giv­ing the im­pres­sive Tracey Nepinak plenty of space to cre­ate a provoca­tive drama queen. In her sec­ond-act scene in the back­yard lawn with Fefu, Emma pro­vides a rare hu­mor­ous in­ter­lude by ad­mit­ting she thinks of gen­i­tals all the time. Us­ing veg­gies as phal­lic props, she spec­u­lates that heaven is pop­u­lated with divine lovers, while hell houses the sex­ual duds. The au­di­ence re­groups in the liv­ing for the third act, when con­fi­dent Emma again grabs the spot­light to makes Fornes’ point that, “Life is theatre. Theatre is life.” Fefu and her Friends is not al­ways sat­is­fy­ing theatre — the mes­sage hardly up­lift­ing — but it is al­ways in­tel­lec­tu­ally en­gag­ing.

JANET SHUM PHOTO

Kelci Stephen­son as Ju­lia.

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