In setting her 1977 feminist play Fefu and Her Friends in 1935, American playwright Maria Irene Fornes anticipated the enduring problems women will have navigating a masculine world in 2014.
The best known work of Fornes, a cult figure in avant-garde theatre, received its Winnipeg debut Thursday night by Sarasv°ti Productions and touched on every issue of modern feminism.
It suggests women continue to repress themselves to do what they need to fit in or be successful.
The almost two-hour drama is intensely cerebral, layered with philosophical ponderings that are often difficult to follow when it slips into the surreal.
It's best not to even try, as character trumps plot in Fefu and Her Friends. Fornes, through able director Hope McIntyre, is more intent on being thought-provoking than entertaining.
Fefu, the evening's lead do-gooder, advises any confused spectator to approach her work as "just something to think about." A lot is asked of the audience, not only by the demanding text but by active participation. The maximum audience of 60 moves among five settings in stately Ralph Connor House (54 West Gate), a heritage home that is an ideal stand-in for Fefu's splendid country estate. The promenade is a pleasant novelty but all the traipsing up and down stairs repeatedly pulls patrons out of the world of the play.
The title character sets the tone immediately, declaring, "My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are." She says that to the startled Cindy and Christina, two of the seven society women she has called together to plan a fundraising event to benefit education.
They are all seemingly vibrant and glamorous women, handsomely turned out in Dianne Klisko's elegant period costumes, but all feel less than whole.
The seemingly competent Fefu confesses to being in constant pain, likely due to her self-loathing and attempts to deny her femininity.
She prefers the company of men and emulates them when she grabs her double-barrelled shotgun and fires a blank (or maybe not) at her husband (unseen, like all the male characters in the play).
Reliable Megan McArton superbly communicates Fefu's feminine strength while offering glimpses of her brazen masculine desires.
The other major character is the tortured, wheelchair-bound Julia, paralyzed from the waist down... or maybe not. In one of the second-act scenes in her bedroom, she suffers from harrowing hallucinations that involve judges and being forced to repeat that women are not human beings.
Kelci Stephenson, who spent time in a wheelchair during a provincial tour of a Munsch play for Prairie Theatre Exchange earlier this year, is forcefully convincing in conveying the way Julia's inner demons have left her more psychologically crippled then physically disabled.
The rest of the women present different torments and disappointments that stem from living in a patriarchy in the 1930s. Most fear being silenced, or sent on a trip to a psychiatrist. Others talk about how society has stacked the deck against strong women.
Paula (Nan Fewchuk), who has recorded in her journal that love affairs last seven years and three months, is bitter about being unloved and without means. Christina (Brenda McLean) is is a scaredy cat who buries her emotions, while Cindy (Tracy Penner) puts up a happy facade that masks her fear at what goes on around her.
Emma is the dreamer and optimist, giving the impressive Tracey Nepinak plenty of space to create a provocative drama queen. In her second-act scene in the backyard lawn with Fefu, Emma provides a rare humorous interlude by admitting she thinks of genitals all the time. Using veggies as phallic props, she speculates that heaven is populated with divine lovers, while hell houses the sexual duds.
The audience regroups in the living for the third act, when confident Emma again grabs the spotlight to makes Fornes' point that, "Life is theatre. Theatre is life."
Fefu and her Friends is not always satisfying theatre -- the message hardly uplifting -- but it is always intellectually engaging.