If, as Shakespeare put it, the play’s the thing, then I must confess that Maria Irene Fornés’s avant-garde Fefu And Her Friends is not my thing, that is unless it happens to performed inside (and in the gardens of) the architectural masterpiece that is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. For its one-of-a-kind setting alone, Hollyhock Fefu merits attention (if not absolute affection).

Cuban-American playwright Fornés could have written her 1977 play with Hollyhock House in mind. Not only could its titular soirée-giver have been patterned after arts-loving oil heiress Aline Barnsdall (for whom Wright designed the not-so-humble abode, construction completed in 1921), Fornés’s play is specifically written to be performed, not on a traditional stage, but as if it were actually taking place in half-a-dozen rooms of Fefu’s country home.

Per Fornés’s specifications, the evening’s twenty Hollyhock House guests view Fefu’s first and third acts together and the second act’s four scenes in groups of five (but in no particular order).

Act One, which takes place in the home’s elegant living room circa 1935, introduces us to bohemian eccentric Fefu (Tunde Skovran) and the seven female friends she has invited over to rehearse a theatrical performance for an upcoming charity event.

Cindy (Guerin Piercy) and Christina (Talia Davis) are the first to arrive followed by wheelchair-bound Julia (Julia Ubrankovics), hysterically paralyzed from a hunter’s bullet that killed a dear but missed her by a mile.

Emma (Caro Zeller) and Paula (Kacie Rogers) show up next, followed by Sue (Claudia Zielke) and Paula’s onetime lesbian lover Cecilia (Christine Uhebe) while the men in their lives remain resolutely outdoors, spoken about but never seen.

This fairly straightforward first act has Fefu And Her Friends discussing, among other things, their hostess’s propensity for shooting her husband (with blanks to be sure, but you never know when the gun might suddenly turn out to be loaded).

Things soon turn downright bizarre in Act Two’s four short, occasionally hallucinogenic scenes, highlighted by a suddenly ambulatory Julia’s stream-of-conscious monolog as she strips down to her undies.

Act Three reunites the audience to witness Fefu And Her Friends in full rehearsal for their upcoming function, garden hijinks highlighted by a free-for-all water fight with some topless cavorting thrown in for good measure.

What makes The Fefu Experience at Hollyhock House far more than simply “an evening of théâtre expérimental” assuredly not for everyone’s tastes is the chance to witness Fornés’s play in a setting unlike any other, and what gives Fefu And Her Friends event status is the fact that, despite Aline Barnsdall’s plan for her art déco abode to form part of an unrealized theater complex, Fefu And Her Friends is the first play ever to be performed inside the distinctively Frank Lloyd Wright edifice.

From the living-room opening (the night view from the “upstage” picture window is especially stunning) to scenes set in the dinette-kitchen, library, and a pair of gardens-with-views, Hollyhock House is never less than a treat for the eyes, even viewed from cramped folding chair/canvas stool seating. Rarely if ever has a playgoing experience felt more legitimately fly-on-the-wall.

Though several cast members are slightly hampered by acting in English as a second language, Davis, Piercy, Rogers, Skovran, Ubranokovics, Uhebe, Zeller, and Zielke alternately sparkle and blaze under Kate Jopson’s assured direction, and that includes even when Fornés has her characters acting out “performance pieces” that in less adept hands might recall a TV/movie spoof of bad avant-garde.

Adding to the overall impact are masked musicians Julia Harnoy on trombone and Ian Walker on bass, lurking outside to perform composer Daniel Szabo’s moody underscoring.

Though daytime production stills don’t reflect her contributions, lighting consultant Kristin Swift makes not just Hollyhock House but Melanie Watnick’s elegant period wear and Lily Bartenstein’s pitch-perfect period 1930s props look all the more gorgeous, and Zsofia Nemes’s choreography is an added bonus.

Fefu And Her Friends is a Hollyhock House presentation of a J.U.S.T Toys production in association with Circle X Theatre Co. It is produced by JR Bruce, Josh Haroutanian, Jopson, Skovran, and Ubrankovics,

Deena Tovar is stage manager and Danielle O’Loughlin is assistant stage manager. Sarah Lindsay is assistant costume designer.

Andrea Ferraz, Jin Jang, Nina Ladegaard, and Taylor Jackson Ross are understudies.

Were it performed in a more traditional setting, I would likely have picked more straightforward fare over Fefu And Her Friends. At Hollyhock House, this is one case where the where makes the what worth seeing.

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Hollyhock House, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.
www. circlextheatre.org/fefu

–Steven Stanley
May 8, 2017
Photos: Daniel Szandtner, except second from top by Elizabeth Daniels


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