Beneath their houndstooth- and jewelry-a-la-Pretty Pretty Princess-clad exteriors, the eight ladies of the Cabaret’s “Fefu and her Friends” are obsessed with filth, bugs, and genitals.
Julia, who is wheelchair-bound due to a hunting accident and mentally impaired due to a petite mal seizure, asserts that “the only important body parts are the smelly ones.” Emma, another friend, muses how businesspeople “stand in a room and act like they don’t have genitals.”
Indeed, in this smartly-written play — written in 1977 but set in 1935 — the titular heroine and her cohorts explore the politics of revulsion and female oppression in a frank and shocking way.
Each member of the cast, led fearlessly by the animated Jennifer Lim, brilliantly shades her performance with hints of the despair and hopelessness of mentally unstable women who hide their discontent from the world with spirited tea parties and water fights. The men are suggested, as when Fefu shoots a shotgun blank at her off-stage husband, but never appear. This powerful absence reinforces the women’s despair, and, as Emma notes, “sense of isolation.”
The script, written by Marie Irene Fornes, deftly explores themes of mortality and sexual oppression.
The dubious validity of Emma’s physical disability and a recurring motif of women’s supposed taintedness and impurity of sexual desire bring aspects of supernatural and otherworldly into the drama. As a result, the play is sweeping and impressive.
Further, the superb acting helps reinforce modern parallels. Besides elements like Emma’s primitive wheelchair, which looks surprisingly like a dining hall seat with stroller wheels attached to it, and the use of brassy, mellifluous period-appropriate musical interludes, the play feels very contemporary.
Lim’s face torturously twists through tens of images in the span of a minute; her trademark is a forced smile, which highlights the despair of her “if-I-love-you-I’ll-shoot-at-you” approach to marriage.
Jami O’Brien, who plays Emma, an on-again/off-again headcase, skillfully portrays the brand of hopelessness and morbidity that mark her prophetic visions. She steals the show in one such episode of madness.
Alone on the stage, the trembling O’Brien simultaneously embodies a chastising, unforgiving divine figure and her terrified self. She screams and contorts as though she’s being exorcised.
Mok uses the shape of the Cabaret stage to create an organic feel in the play. Characters follow several different established pathways. Their movements suggest a circular pattern and they seem to follow each other around.
Sometimes, the women walk by each other in the small performing space; within the play, they’re separated by walls and doors. This counter-intuitive spareness of contact emphasizes the walls that separate the women from each other.
Though they kiss each other freely on the lips and hug with a frequency that would put members of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to shame, they are isolated beyond hope owing to social limitations.
Fornes’ play dramatizes the period of “Fefu” as one that offered virtually no escape for women. As a result, a sense of hopelessness pervades the story. It’s a grittily drawn portrait of an era in which limited opportunities had the power not just to wound but apparently to break the souls of those who suffered under them.
But Mok elevates this despair to art and lends significance to the sadness with expert set design, costuming, and music. Playing power games with their unloaded shotguns and their teacups full of water, the women always lose, but viewers of this touching tragedy win.