Playwright María Irene Fornés didn’t like to be labeled. She was a Cuban-American, lesbian and feminist, and she stood against what is today labeled “identity politics,” according to Thinking Cap Theatre’s Artistic Director Nicole Stodard.
“Yet, all these groups have celebrated her for these obvious reasons,” added Stodard. “She was not an activist. She was undeniably troubled by depicting people and the struggles they experienced. In her work, you can see the impact of the patriarchy in their lives, but she handles them in an honest, raw way and offers no solution.”
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thinking Cap’s first live production is Fornés’ breakout Off-Off-Broadway hit, “Fefu & Her Friends,” opening June 3 at the company’s new home, Mad Arts in Dania Beach.
The play, which earned Fornés an Obie when it premiered in 1977, is considered by many to be her greatest work. Set in the spring of 1935 at the New England country home of the title character, the play’s premise is simple and considered comic: Fefu has gathered her friends to drink lemonade, play croquet, and plan and rehearse a fundraiser to benefit arts in education. Beneath this surface lies a probing investigation of friendship, gender, sexuality, class and disability.
“Fefu” was written over a period of many years, spanning the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“It’s just turned 45 years old, but each time it’s been revived, it’s spoken to the moment of its revival. It’s truly a master play by a master writer,” explained Stodard. “Here we are in 2022 and even though it’s set in a specific time, there are ideas that continue to resonate as we consider the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade and the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. Again and again, people’s rights are on the line.”
While the play had been planned as part of the company’s 10th anniversary season in 2020, then moving to Mad Arts will allow Stodard and her creative team to create an even more immersive experience for audiences, thanks to the facility’s open, flexible space.
The first and third acts take place in Fefu’s living room, set up in the black box space, but for the second act, the audience will have the option of following a “roadmap” or taking in vignettes set up throughout the facility. And Stodard promises a pre-show experience, silent performances that will be occurring as the audiences enter.
“This play accomplishes several aspects of Thinking Cap’s mission — plays that experiment with theatrical form are the cornerstone of our mission. This play has influenced American theater in ways that the younger generation doesn’t even realize. This is the sort of experimental theater from the 1960s and 1970s and no one had ever seen anything like this … We know these types of immersive theater now.”
Returning to live productions, Stodard confirmed, was a little like riding a bike.
“I questioned for some months during the pandemic if we were still artists and knew how to make theater. Doing it virtually is not the same as doing it in person. It’s been really wonderful to get back and reaffirmed why we have always made theater,” she said.
Fornés died in 2018, just before the pandemic, and creatives, critics and scholars have yet to fully evaluate her legacy. Thinking Cap is launching a podcast series this month and Cambridge University Press is working on an anthology due in 2024. Stodard said plans for a regional “Fornés-tival” are also in the works, but for now South Florida audiences will get just a taste of the playwright’s work.
Thinking Cap Theatre presents “Fefu & Her Friends,” June 3 – 19 at Mad Arts, 481 S. Federal Hwy. in Dania Beach. Tickets start at $35 at ThinkingCapTheatre.org.