Fefu and Her Friends is a powerful examination of womanhood, says Julia Oppenheim Traber, director of Catastrophic Theatre’s current production of the María Irene Fornés avant-garde play, which runs through Mar 8.
Split into three parts that chronicle the course of a day, Fefu follows a group of 1930s women as they gather at their friend’s home to work on a charity event. As the hours pass, issues of romance, womanhood, and the betrayals that the women have carried through the years begin to emerge.
“I love that this play has eight women onstage–and they’re not talking about men,” says Traber, who has assembled an all-female cast of some of Houston’s most recognized actors.
The strong female cast is fitting given Fornés own history in the theater world. Often called America’s “greatest and least know dramatist,” the Cuban American playwright wrote and directed more than 40 plays and won nine Obie Awards, the annual awards given to Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway productions, before her death in 2018. Her work has also inspired such playwrighting heavyweights as Tony Kushner, Edward Albee, and Paula Vogel.
Catastrophic Co-Founder and Artistic Director Jason Nodler studied under Fornes while he was a student at New York University, according to a press release, which also noted the impact Fornes’ work had on the company and its predecessor, Infernal Bridegroom Productions.
“My hope is to continue bringing her plays to Houston audiences, to spread the gospel, so to speak, of Fornes,” Catastrophic co-founder and producing artistic director Tamarie Cooper said in the press release. “Her approach to playwriting is evident in our approach to theatre-making; she encouraged spontaneity and the stripping away of all preconceived notions of oneself and the work.”
In addition to a female-driven story written by a pioneering female playwright, and a female director, women are at the helm in other behind-the-scenes aspects of Catastrophic’s Fefu as well. The production’s prop designer, stage manager, costume designer, and booth operator are all women. Traber says the female-centric cast and crew allows for a freedom she thinks might not happen as easily in a mixed-gender environment.
“We’ve really been able to explore choices, and not feel self-conscious about them, during the rehearsal process,” Traber says.
That easy working relationship, as well as the powerhouse cast, will translate to audiences when they see the show. Although, the play was written in the 1970s, Traber believes the themes of the show—identity, female friendships, navigating a patriarchal society—are ones that still resonate today.
Fefu, she says, is about the essence of what it means to be a woman. But, she cautions, the script can feel almost dreamlike at times, giving audiences a feeling that they’re watching vignettes instead of a linear plot.
“Some people might walk away asking, wait, what was that scene about?” says Traber. “And we think that’s great. Theater should help us think more deeply.”
Thru Mar 8. MATCH Houston, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More info and tickets at matchouston.org.