Mystery and feminine rage expressed in immersive settings with fluid blocking by director Juniper Gibbs ’25: This is Fefu and Her Friends, StageFemmes’ latest production. With its five locations and all-female cast, the play is in no sense traditional, although the barebones set may trick the mind into believing it is so. Written by Cuban American playwright María Irene Fornés in 1977, Fefu and Her Friends is the seemingly simple story of a group of eight women gathering at the title character’s country house to practice for a presentation.
Fefu, portrayed with a gripping intensity by a luminous Merilee Weil ’26, starts off the play with a bang, literally and figuratively. A speech about her husband Philip’s disgust toward women and her own fascination with this idea, leads to Fefu shooting an offstage Philip with a supposedly blank bullet.
Male revulsion towards female intelligence and power, and the many ways it presents itself in women’s psychologies and actions, becomes the play’s theme. Our protagonists’ intellects are recognized as taboo, becoming the catalyst for depression, self loathing and loss of identity, as the patriarchy’s disgust for the idea of a sentient woman seeps into their psyches.
This is a play where acting must embody method-like emotion to be believable and entertaining, and the actors did not disappoint. Weil’s wit masks a seething rage and sadness about the repressive condition of herself and her friends, and her scenes with Julia (Emily White ’25) contain a type of morbid connection that was on par with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter in “All About Eve” or Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.”
White’s Julia is a constantly unraveling enigma, experiencing hallucinations seemingly stemming from a societal and patriarchal desire to destroy her once-brilliant mind and abuse her into a subhuman condition. A brave and caring woman in front of her friends, she quickly reveals her all-consuming depression in a scene where the audience is intimately placed before her in her bedroom. In a half-dream state, she speaks of a prayer she must say in order to survive: all women, being subhuman, must be kept clean and in stagnant positions of submission before they are eventually sent to Hell. As White flitted in and out of reality, the audience remained perfectly silent, enraptured by the mystery of the character they saw before them.
The rest of the ensemble played off of each other wonderfully, whether in comedic scenes discussing genitalia or conversations about women being placed under psychological treatment for being too sexually attractive. Elizabeth Joffe ’25 as Emma provided a lovely comedic relief to the often somber dramatics of her friends, while Niamh Cahill ’25 as Sue moved with a quiet grace through her scenes.
The second act of the play was an interactive experience, with the audience taken to four separate locations, two in the Craft Barn and two outdoors. These scenes imparted a sense of intimacy, a Sofia Coppola-like window into the lives of the women as they read magazines and gardened. Gibbs’ direction on blocking created a fluid sense of feminine companionship — the women hugging, resting and giggling displayed their fleeting happiness at being with each other.
The one minor critique I had of the production was the costuming, which seemed to lack continuity in style, character and period. Some characters were dressed in ’70s-style blouses and skirts, while others wore more bland, contemporary garb. Gibbs, who did the costuming herself, seemed to have been trying to mix the original period of the production with modern tastes, but the clothes lacked the realism that the cast displayed and appeared an awkwardly put together afterthought.However, with actors as wonderful as Weil and White, the underwhelming costume design faded into irrelevance. Fefu and Her Friends was some of the best acting I have seen at Kenyon or, for that matter, in any media this year. I commend Gibbs for taking on such an unconventional play and making it as transformative and enigmatic as it was meant to be. I hope that Kenyon’s Department of Dance, Drama and Film will take a cue from this incredible performance and continue to stage mystifying plays starring, written by and oriented around wome