These are strange days for feminism. While the sagacious cultural critics at Time are pronouncing the movement DOA based on Ally McBeal's rising hemline and shrinking waistline, Xena: Warrior Princess is kicking her way through syndication and the singing spawn of SpiceCo. continue to attract hordes of salivating preteens with a combination of marketing savvy, witless exuberance, and the promise of Girl Power. Strange days indeed, but not without precedent. In 1975 the cover of Harper's announced a "Requiem for the Women's Movement." Around the same time, Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene Fornes was attracting the adoration of hordes of budding feminists with Fefu and Her Friends.
Like Ally's adventures in Lawyer Land, Fefu, which is now being staged by Frontier Theatre, is essentially void of meaningful plot. It is, rather, an extended feminist polemic, and its eight female characters, gathered for some sort of philanthropic society meeting, are effectively mouthpieces for Fornes's musings on sex, death, and, for lack of a more eloquent term, Girl Power. We're introduced first to Fefu (Rachel Evenson), the feisty and eccentric hostess. In the play's opening scene, she explains to Cindy (Tammy Close) and Christina (Cassandra Cutler) that "My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are." She then aims a shotgun out the French doors of her prim (and inexplicably blue) Victorian sitting room and takes a shot at the offstage misogynist.
She's shooting blanks, but the parameters of the argument are set. Fefu and her friends are each a bundle of raw nerves, consumed by self-loathing and vaguely aware of their sexual power. The other women arrive in clumps; among them are a vivacious drama queen, a pair of dour lesbians, and Julie (Sam Whatson), who is at least half mad and who is consigned to a wheelchair as a result of a hunting accident. The play is set in 1935 and the actors are dressed as aging flappers. Like proper society women they prattle amiably about nothing in particular, while Fefu interrupts with the occasional diatribe against the gentler sex. "I still like men better than women," she explains to her guests. "They are well together. Women are not....They are like live wires."
In the second act, Fornes blows apart the fairly sedate domestic tableau with a bit of theatrical chicanery. The audience is divided into four groups and led to different areas of the theater to observe four smaller scenes involving one or two of the characters. In no particular order: The lesbians try to rekindle their relationship; Fefu and the drama queen talk about genitalia while fondling vegetables; Cindy and Christina exchange ridiculously banal repartee; and Julie, lying on a mattress in a bare corner of the theater's dressing room, has a frightening hallucination about her impending death. As Fefu slips into delirious, semi-absurd melodrama, the already shaky Frontier production nearly collapses. Whatson's scene alone manages to generate a modicum of intensity--and that is only because it is very hard to ignore a woman screaming very loudly in a very small room.
One suspects that Fornes's original intention was to draw the audience into voyeuristic collusion with her characters, yet these days the structural innovation is hardly innovative and only serves to highlight the overwhelming pretentiousness of the play. By the time Fefu and company reconvene for a game of croquet in the garden, we are as bewildered by the whole mess as we are indifferent to the characters themselves. There is more chattering, a water fight, and a denouement that makes next to no sense: Fefu aims the shotgun out the French doors again and takes another shot at the offstage husband. This time she accidentally kills a bunny, and, for some reason, Julie dies as a result. The message would seem to be that killing the beast outside (man) exorcises the beast within (hysteria, hallucination, and paralysis). But by the time the lights come up, we are still in the dark, scratching our heads and wondering if we can make it home in time for Ally McBeal.
Somehow, it is only mildly surprising to learn that one of Calista Flockhart's most acclaimed stage roles was as Laura Wingfield, the skittish young maid of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. The role is right up her alley: Laura is a painfully awkward waif whose ego is as fragile as the miniature glass figurines she collects, and whose very existence seems to hinge on the arrival of a certain "gentleman caller." As everyone knows, Williams sets up poor Laura and her glass friends just to shatter them in a spasm of emotional violence.
At the risk of slighting Ms. Flockhart's performance, Heidi Fellner, the Laura Wingfield of Theatre in the Round's The Glass Menagerie, is flawless. Limping through the shadows in a dress the color of faded blue roses, she is nearly spectral. She exudes palpable panic as her mother (Jean Olson) and brother Tom (Addison G. Johnston) argue over her future. When the gentleman (Dan Hopman) finally comes calling, she goes to pieces answering the door. And, as she and the gentleman engage in their halting waltz across the floor of the cramped Wingfield apartment, edging closer to the precious glass unicorn balancing on the table behind them, her blossoming ecstasy is heartbreaking.
Although we know that the glass will break and Laura's last chance at happiness will waltz out the door with the gentleman, the predictability of it all can ultimately deepen the play's pathos. Theatre in the Round's production does little to accentuate the tragedy, however, opting instead for a sort of bittersweet memoir. O'Connor as the gentleman is a good-natured chump. Tom, too, becomes a sort of wistful fool, bouncing on the furniture while raging against his mother's tyranny and mugging like a spoiled child while she scolds him for his excessive drinking. Olson is suitably desiccated as the overbearing Southern matriarch but altogether too genial for the part--without the passive-aggressive witch turning everyone's existence into a living hell, can this really be Tennessee Williams?
Subtract the pathos and you have Judi Ann Mason's Indigo Blues, now playing at Penumbra Theatre. Think of it as Tennessee Williams Lite--gentleman callers, loony Southern belles, and lots of shouting without any of that distracting subtlety or substance. Indigo Blues begins and ends with a smoldering saxophone solo courtesy of Idris Ackamoor. What comes between is anyone's guess. It is either a romantic drama about two Southern sisters caught in a love triangle, or a ridiculous comedy about two Southern sisters caught in a love triangle.
In either case the two sisters, Clara (Edythe Jason) and Muriel (Candy Brown), are both carrying a flame for the itinerant sax man, Moses (Ackamoor), who split town 30 years earlier. Since the play is set in the South, one of the sisters is a somewhat batty faded beauty, and the other is a frustrated spinster. Moses' return from his exodus gives both sisters a chance to scream, get on each other's nerves, and exchange lines like "You're still running behind a pair of pants because there's a man in them."
When the dialogue becomes repetitive (as it does repeatedly), Ackamoor steps in with a meandering solo. His music is a pleasant distraction, er, interlude, yet it isn't enough to save a script that doesn't bother to differentiate between sitcom and soap opera. Though guffawing heartily, we're left with the feeling that we may be laughing at Indigo Blues rather than because of it.
Fefu and Her Friends runs through March 7 at the Phoenix Playhouse; (612) 813-0385. The Glass Menagerie runs through March 7 at Theatre in the Round; (612) 333-3010. Indigo Blues runs through March 21 at Penumbra Theatre; (651) 224-3180.
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