Independently connected: Fefu and Her Friends meet virtually | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Independently connected: Fefu and Her Friends meet virtually

Maria Irene Fornés’s feminist masterpiece Zooms in to help Season of Concern.

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Fefu and Her Friends, written and directed in 1977 by Cuban American playwright Maria Irene Fornés, is set over the course of one day at Fefu’s New England home, where she has gathered seven of her female friends in order to make preparations for an upcoming arts education fundraiser they are hosting.  

Originally staged as a promenade style performance, the audience is meant to physically move through four different scenes occurring simultaneously during Part II. Upon its release, the play was immediately lauded as a feminist masterpiece, both for its all-female casting and the subject matter it tackled. 

On December 5, Fefu and her friends will assemble in theater patrons’ own living rooms (or kitchens, bedrooms, favorite cozy nook, etc.) all across the city to raise funds for a different initiative, one that has been a Chicago staple for decades. 

Founded in 1987 in response to the arrival of the AIDS crisis in Chicago, Season of Concern has provided direct, short-term emergency financial assistance to anyone working in the Chicago-area theater community who has found themselves temporarily unable to work due to injury, illness, or circumstance—including COVID-19. As theaters remain closed during what is otherwise a peak fundraising period for the nonprofit, the organization has had to get creative with their fundraising initiatives, especially at a time where the community they support is facing unprecedented need. 

Season of Concern is co-producing this virtual production of Fefu and Her Friends, featuring an all-star cast of Chicago’s favorite leading ladies, with Mary Beth Fisher (seen most recently in the Chicago-based film Saint Frances), who has had a self-described “life-long love affair” with Fornés’s work. Fisher pitched Fefu to Season of Concern after the organization approached her about ideas for fundraising programming this year. 

Fefu and Her Friends has been a play that has held great fascination for me for many, many years,” Fisher said. “And I thought, you know, wouldn't it be fun and interesting to do something with eight women who kind of represent the entire city of Chicago?”

Season of Concern agreed.

“The actors, the women who are involved in this, are so generous and giving and personal,” said Mark Kaplan, Season of Concern board member. “I mean, everybody's finding connection to this material that is so timely right now and also so, so needed. Everybody's hungry for this.”

Fisher said she chose not to act in the production because she wanted to embrace a more behind-the-scenes role as producer, a role that—in the age of virtual performance—included a lot of technical support. 

“The learning curve of bringing eight people into a room from different locations, all of whom are operating through different kinds of devices, and all of whom have different levels of connectability and connectivity with their Internet . . . that was kind of eye-opening for us,” Fisher said. 

“When you're creating something artistically and trying to help the actors connect with each other emotionally, through [Zoom], I'm sure they all went through frustrations just with the technicalities that they had to deal with,” Fisher said. “But once everybody sort of figured all of that out over a period of time—and we were all figuring it out together—their efforts were absolutely heroic.”

As we approach nearly a full year of quarantine, any opportunity to meaningfully connect feels electric, but the enduring allure and relevance of Fefu, and the dynamic of femaleness it explores, will be on full display in this production. 

“These women are profoundly amazing as artists and as human beings, and their honesty and truth and commitment, their ability to create intimacy with each other [and have] intimate conversations with each other through this medium is extraordinary,” Fisher said. 

Fefu does not shy from exploring and celebrating contradiction. It balances its lust for intimacy—both platonic and romantic—with other women alongside a rallying cry for independence from the patriarchy, all while recognizing that men are creatures to be both envied and desired. Set in 1935 and written in 1977, this latter contradiction is all the more relevant in 2020. 

This particular production of Fefu notably marks a pivotal point in Stacy Stoltz’s burgeoning solo directorial career after having co-directed alongside her husband, Matt Hawkins, for much of her career thus far. 

Fisher asked Stoltz to direct after having met her through the University of Notre Dame’s Fornés Festival last fall, where Stoltz directed a staged student reading of Fefu and Fisher tackled a more recent work of Fornés’s, The Summer in Gossensass (1997). Fornés died in 2018 at age 88.

Prior to the pandemic, Stoltz had plans to direct a reading of Fefu back in Chicago, with the hope that she could get it produced for the stage. 

“I've learned so much from working alongside (my husband) . . . [but] it was a very big moment for me to organize something with the hopes that I could get it produced,” she said. 

The pandemic disrupted her original plans, and then came the opportunity to collaborate with Fisher and Season of Concern. 

“I think I struggle to articulate my feelings about wanting to be confident, wanting to be more powerful, wanting to be able to express my opinions and ideas,” Stoltz said. “But there is some sort of veil that I think probably [affects] women on all levels of the spectrum as far as confidence goes . . . from careful to carefree, that I think everyone can relate to in a way. So much of the play is trying to express this idea—trying to explain what it feels like to be a woman in a patriarchal society and to live in our bodies. And just trying to unite around that.”

Stoltz referenced a line from the play that she says resonates with her on a deeper level. 

“‘Stop and listen to me.’ I said it so strongly that he stopped.

Then, I said to him, ‘Restrain yourself.’ 

I wanted to say respect me.

I wasn't sure whether the words coming out of my mouth were what I wanted to say.”

Staged in three parts, Fefu and Her Friends is an exploration of how futile women’s attempts at executing exactitude are in a patriarchal society, but how impossible it is to entirely give up on the desire to try for the same. Whilst seemingly rehearsing for their charitable event, cacophonous conversations about living with and under men pepper the theatrical discourse—what that means, how it feels, the desire it simultaneously stokes and dampens. Each character is her own planet, but as Fefu says, “If they shall recognize each other [and these women do, even over Zoom], the world will be blown apart.”  v

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