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Fefu and Her Friends can be a difficult production to review, regardless of the production elements, caliber of the actors, or design decisions, because of the attention the script commands on its own. The writing could stand alone as the topic of a dissertation, with its combination of realistic and absurdist elements to convey the experience of women in the 1930s. Playwright María Irene Fornés layers mundane activities with highly stylized dialogue between and among the eight women of the cast to illuminate the multi-layered challenges that women faced in the 1930s, when the play takes place. While Fornés wrote it in the 1970s, Fefu seems to come back to life on stage in every era, this time in 2019 for NC State’s University Theatre.
Script analysis aside, theatre is meant to be performed. Fornés provides unique staging and audience participation to create yet another layer in the full realization of her one-of-a-kind play. While the depth of the material provides a rich excavation site for students of the theatre and social sciences, the message holds something for students, artists, and audiences alike, because the message is as variable as each individual experiencing the play. All of these considerations make educational venues like NC State the perfect setting for a production of Fefu.
Wednesday’s production opened the show’s brief run in University Theatre’s Open Door Series – a second stage production company with a focus on artistic process for the students, many of whom have never performed before (four of the eight cast members, to be exact). Every aspect of the production conveyed a focus on students and learning. The only professional credits in the program went to director Rachel Klem and Dramaturg/Acting Coach Mike Mellas. University students receive free admission for the duration of the run, and with a student-audience in mind, Mellas has provided a comprehensive program note conveying the thought-provoking nature of the show. Despite the “stripped-down” aesthetic of the technical design, the quality of this Open Door production was practically indistinguishable from University Theatre’s Mainstage productions. Director Klem navigated Fornés’ unique stage directions with ease. In a play where pace can make or break the performance, the experienced stage crew guided the audience between the four different locations in the theater with efficiency and kept within the two-hour time frame, even with an intermission. Klem’s most memorable choice, a stairwell for Julia’s hallucination-induced monologue, created a brilliant visual effect of the downward spiral Julia experiences in the play.
Carson Smith, despite citing Fefu as only her second acting credit with University Theatre, demonstrated comfortability with Julia's challenging sort of split personalities. Likewise, her fellow cast members conveyed an understanding and synthesis of the knowledge of their characters in their performances, surely a testament to their dedication to character study as a company. Making their University Theatre debuts, Juliana Balik, Kaitlyn North, Elizabeth Winn, and Gaven Bell presented a spectrum of characters and female experiences. Bell, a freshman, ought to consider a minor in Theatre to accompany her intended major of Biological Sciences. With her commitment to the eccentric and theatrical Emma, she belongs on stage. Rosie Hou, the most seasoned of the cast, was subtle and moving as Paula. Her contemporary in tenure with the company, Griffin James introduced a rare deviation from Fornés’ instruction that the cast should be female without any male influence seen on stage. James’ compassionate portrayal of Sue went without explanation in the production notes. Perhaps a commentary on the inescapable male presence in the female experience, the casting choice raised one of many other questions from the confounding play. Although only having two years with the company, Ariel Penland demonstrated a comprehensive character development of Fefu, perhaps the best of the cast. Penland allowed the reactions of her scene partners to affect the unconventional dialogue required by the playwright. Fornés’ sometimes minutes-long monologues run the risk of becoming either self-glorifying or self-deprecating in the event that an actor fails to connect with their partners on stage. Luckily, the company as a whole proved to be successful with these on stage relationships, Penland standing out in particular.
If the best art asks questions instead of providing answers, Fefu and her Friends is a Smithsonian-worthy masterpiece. The limited experience of this cast proved to be a non-issue for accessing the challenging material, and if you read the dramaturg notes, you will be more comfortable walking away asking, "What did I just watch?" If you are an NC State student, go see this thought-provoking play free of charge, and then go see it again. You are guaranteed to walk away with a new lifetime's worth of questions every time.
Fefu and her Friends continues through Sunday, October 27. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.