At first blush, using Barnsdall Art Park’s iconic Hollyhock House as the setting for director Kate Jopson's environmental staging of María Irene Fornés' wryly metaphysical, 1977 feminist drama, Fefu and Her Friends, might seem inspired.
The Frank Lloyd Wright 1920s landmark, with its bas-relief masonry and magnificently detailed woodwork and furnishings, fits the play’s 1935 milieu of bourgeois refinement and privilege like a glove. So too does the house’s real-life history. Hollyhock’s original owner, the Los Angeles oil heiress, radical feminist and avant-garde theater-maker Aline Barnsdall, might well be a real-life counterpart to Fefu, Fornés' contrarian provocatrice, whose emotional volatility and playful despair are faithfully rendered in Tunde Skovran’s delightfully mercurial performance.
But there are perils to employing museum-grade architecture, no matter how breathtakingly beautiful, as elaborately realistic stage scenery for an anti-realist play whose use of prewar drawing-room naturalism is something of a red herring. Like Clare Boothe Luce’s ludicrously collaborationist cartoon, 1936’s The Women, Fefu is a play about a circle of upper-class friends, notable for having no men onstage. But where Luce’s play employs the absence to underscore a melodrama of incompleteness for characters who eagerly subordinate themselves to the offstage men that define them, Fornés' play very pointedly makes its subject the cost of internalizing that fraught otherness.
As the women gather to rehearse a charity fundraising presentation for an educational project at the country home of Fefu and her never-seen husband, Philip, the action opens in the Hollyhock living room with a public scene that introduces the characters in terms of their relationship to Fefu. Fornés then famously divides the audience into four groups, which in Jopson’s smartly composed production, rotate through the rooms and grounds for four simultaneously performed shorter scenes probing the private dynamics between the women, as well as more unconscious desires and hurts. The ensemble and audience then reconvene in the garden as those revelations play out in the dramatic ironies of Act 3.
Fefu and the wheelchair-bound Julia (a compelling Julia Ubrankovics) define the narrative's thematic poles. Fefu’s “strange marriage” to Philip is characterized by the sadomasochism of the weird game of William Tell they play, in which Fefu takes pot shots at the husband with a gun that may or may not be loaded with live ammunition. The emotionally vulnerable Julia, meanwhile, is a woman whose identification with a deer has left her a histrionic paraplegic after witnessing the animal shot by a hunter.
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The other characters register somewhere in between. The tolerant Cindy (Guerin Piercy) and the disapproving newcomer Christina (Talia Davis) mostly serve as an expository frame for Fefu’s outrageous behavior. Flamboyantly theatrical Emma (an engaging Caro Zeller) is a more earthy version of Fefu. Paula (Kacie Rogers) and Cecilia are revealed to be ex-lovers, with Paula still in the difficult posttraumatic throes of romantic withdrawal. The domestically inclined Sue (Claudia Zielke) most embraces the 1930s subservient ideal of helpmeet and housewife.
Skovran and Ubrankovics are both standouts in the play’s key, albeit admittedly showiest roles. Ubrankovics gives a finely embodied reading of the play’s darkest and most lyrical writing in Julia’s hallucinatory Act 2 monologue, and Skovran’s nervous energy keeps the inchoate tensions bubbling and drives the play toward its shocking conclusion.
But for the audience, putting on the disposable surgical booties required before entering the “theater” underscores a kind of look-but-don’t-touch one-upmanship to an evening that might be subtitled “Fornés v. Frank Lloyd Wright.” The sheer pleasure of Fornés’ poetry ultimately prevails, but one leaves Hollyhock House feeling the strain.
J.U.S.T. Toys Productions and Circle X Theatre at Hollyhock House, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., East Hollywood; through May 28. Circlextheatre.org/fefu