From a night of Shakespeare’s scenes to a performance of “Company,” Swarthmore’s drama groups have already had a significant impact on campus entertainment this semester. The groups have used spaces from Upper Tarble to Olde Club to showcase their dramatic talent. However, this weekend, audiences will find quite a different location for Senior Company’s 2012 production. Instead of lining up and taking seats in Swarthmore’s performance spaces, the audience for the latest production on campus will be taken by bus to an apartment building on North Chester Road, which has been specially decorated for the play, “Fefu and Her Friends.”
The play, hosted by the Department of Theater, will run today at 8:30 p.m., tomorrow at 8 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The performance is free, but reservations must be made ahead of time. “This year the four members of the class chose a mysterious, lovely and challenging play,” said Professor Elizabeth Stevens of the Theater Department, the faculty advisor. “And they decided to give themselves the additional challenge of both acting in and co-directing the production.”
“Fefu and Her Friends” was written by Marie Irene Fornes, a Cuban-American playwright born in 1930. Fornes has written dozens of plays, including “Promenade” for which she won her first Obie Award (an award given by The Village Voice for off-Broadway productions in New York City), “Mud” — another Obie winner — and “And What of the Night?” which won her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
“We [the directors] had [gone] through a lot of scripts, but this one intrigued us; the script was going to be a staging and aesthetic challenge that many of us had not yet faced — site-specific theater,” said Michelle Fennell ’12, an actor and one of the directors. “Fornes also wrote strong roles for females,” Fennell added. “It really is surprising how few scripts have more than, say, two enticing and full female characters. And even more frustrating, the dialogue — and sometimes the whole plot — often revolves around a male character. ‘Fefu and Her Friends’ deviated substantially from this norm.”
Senior Company is a theater group made up of all the senior theater majors — Ryane Disken-Cahill, Michelle Fennell, Lori Barkin and Jessica Cannizzaro. The group directs and performs a play every year which counts as the thesis for drama majors. For “Fefu and Her Friends,” the play includes all the members of Senior Company acting as well as members of other classes who were casted during an open audition. In past years, Senior Company has performed “Metamorphoses” by Mary Zimmerman, “Melancholy Play” by Sarah Ruhl and “Vinegar Tom” by Caryl Churchill, among many others.
“Senior Company is a required class for all senior Theater Majors and always has a faculty member assigned to help the students produce the play,” Professor Stevens said. “They get to pick it, cast it, direct it — everything. The advisor is available to help solve problems and give advice, which the company members are free to take or leave.”
One of the most unique things about “Fefu and Her Friends” will be the setting. The play is set in the main character’s home in the 1930’s and centers on a group of women who met in college. In addition to being set in an off-campus house, the play will feature a rotation of the audience, so half of the audience will view some scenes while the other half will see others.
“From a set designer’s point of view this is different in that the play takes place outside what we consider traditional theater space,” Assistant Professor of Design Laila Swanson, the set and costume designer, said. “The scenes are being played with audience members up close and as part of the natural environment, like visitors to an event in this particular home. This is a naturalistic setting from the 1930’s and must have a realistic feel of that era as it pertains to furniture and props.”
The directors chose to perform “Fefu and Her Friends” for a variety of reasons, including the feminist themes of the play. “The audience gets to ‘live’ in the house with the characters for two hours, to see them up close. It’s sort of like a live film. It is also a haunting, beautifully wrought story exploring the relationships among a group of eight women,” Stevens said.
The senior directors were all also cast as women in the play. “I have the role of Emma, the very dramatic, theatrical and earnest friend of Fefu” Fennell said.
“When the other directors and I were reading through and trying to figure out the casting, Emma was not everyone’s first instinct for me. However, I wanted a real challenge, and for me, this meant handling a character I was typically never cast as: the boisterous and presentational woman of the world,” she added.
The play should attract students interested in drama, feminism, or simply a good story. “I hope the students enjoy the break from the traditional black box theater,” Swanson said. “I also hope they find the story intriguing and can identify with some aspects of it as it relates to issues they may experience in 2011.”