Season of Concern staging virtual ‘Fefu’ as fundraising benefit for local acting community

Since its founding in 1987, the non-profit SOC has relied predominantly on holiday spirit to fund its mission: Providing emergency financial assistance to theater practitioners impacted by illness, injury or circumstances that prevent them from working.

SHARE Season of Concern staging virtual ‘Fefu’ as fundraising benefit for local acting community
Chavrin Alvarez (top row, from left), Sandra Delgado, Ora Jones, Delia Kropp, Sadieh Rifai; Lisa Tijero (bottom row, from left), Janet Ulrich Brooks, Penelope Walker, Stacy Stoltz and Mary Beth Fisher are presenting “Fefu and Her Friends.”

Chavrin Alvarez (top row, from left), Sandra Delgado, Ora Jones, Delia Kropp, Sadieh Rifai; Lisa Tijero (bottom row, from left), Janet Ulrich Brooks, Penelope Walker, Stacy Stoltz and Mary Beth Fisher are presenting “Fefu and Her Friends.”

Provided

In a normal November, hundreds of actors would be brandishing festooned buckets in in post-show lobbies throughout Chicago, banking on the goodwill of audiences to drop in a few dollars for Season of Concern. Since its founding in 1987, the non-profit SOC has relied predominantly on holiday spirit to fund its mission: Providing emergency financial assistance to theater practitioners impacted by illness, injury or circumstances that prevent them from working.

Due to COVID-19, those circumstances have never been more dire. With theaters darkened indefinitely and countless actors out of work, SOC is charting new territory – producing a show from scratch.

Untitled

‘Fefu and Her Friends’

When: Dec. 5 – 12

Where: Streaming as a fund-raiser for Season of Concern

Tickets: $5-$10

Run-time: 80 minutes

Info: seasonofconcern.org


Directed by Stacy Stoltz and featuring an eight-woman ensemble anchored by Ora Jones, “Fefu and Her Friends” will be streamed as a staged reading Dec. 5 – 12. The Dec. 5 reading will include a live talk-back with the cast. Proceeds will benefit Season of Concern.

Stoltz directed Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés 1977 feminist classic for the University of Notre Dame in 2019. She’d been planning a live reading in May when the pandemic hit.

“It’s a little terrifying to me, how accurate the words feel right now,” Stoltz said. “These women are all just trying be themselves and thrive in a patriarchal society. Each one is trapped, each one is trying to connect so they don’t have to be so isolated.”

Set in 1935, “Fefu” unfurls at the titular host’s country house where the women have gathered to plan a charity fund-raiser. The mood whiplashes from silly to threatening, giddy to violent, sometimes in the space of a single line. All of the women are in some kind of mental or physical pain, but not one can fully articulate precisely why. Throughout, there’s a spikey undercurrent of tension as the women explore (and vehemently argue about) the source of their troubles.

Jones plays Fefu.

“For Fefu and her friends, there has been and continues to be a threat to their freedom, whether they acknowledge it or not,” Jones said. “They’ve all been threatened and limited in some way — Manipulation. Gaslighting. Violence.

Ora Jones (pictured in the 2018 Steppenwolf Theatre production “The Roommate”) is starring as the title character in the virtual production of “Fefu and Her Friends” for Season of Concern.

Ora Jones (pictured in the 2018 Steppenwolf Theatre production “The Roommate”) is starring as the title character in the virtual production of “Fefu and Her Friends” for Season of Concern.

Michael Brosilow

“I find Fefu to be a very free-flowing spirit who keeps running up against walls. And these walls are getting closer. For me, at least for today, this is about Fefu trying to defeat those walls,” she said.

“Fefu” sometimes takes on a haze of surrealism; both Stoltz and cast member Delia Kropp (Cindy) spoke to the play’s sometimes “hallucinatory” feel.

“It’s actually kind of in-your-face,” said Kropp. “We’re living in this hallucination where the needs of men have always come before the needs of women. What ‘Fefu’ examines is the impact that has on women. How do women relate to each other in a world where we’ve all been devalued for so long?

“It’s an interesting choice for Season of Concern’s first play because it’s basically telling men that they’re a big part of the problem. It doesn’t hold back,” Kropp said.

When co-producer Mary Beth Fisher brought Fornes’ script to Season of Concern as a possible fund-raiser, the board was quickly all-in. “We all read it and we were all like, Oh. My God. Yes,” said SOC board member and co-producer Mark David Kaplan.

SOC generally brings in between $250,000 and $300,000 through holiday collections, Kaplan estimated — the largest chunk of fund-raising the group does annually. “Obviously, we won’t see those numbers this year, though we need the money more than ever,” he said. “Art is a necessity for everyone but it’s also a livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people, in this region alone. And the truth is, nobody knows when we’ll be able to come back. Nobody.”

In some ways, “Fefu” — with its themes of isolation and encroaching chaos — is a fitting play for a world in quarantine. The first part of the play follows traditionally linear scenes. For the second part of the play, Fornes has multiple scenes playing in multiple locations, simultaneously. The audience is usually split into sections to watch each scene, and then rotates as each scene finishes. That structure makes a reading — especially a virtual reading — challenging but by no means impossible, Stoltz said.

“The structure isn’t traditional but the content is understandable. It’s a collage of experiences and conversations. My biggest desire is to create a visual experience that allows us to really see the women connecting,” Stoltz said.

“It’s beautiful and musical and a lot of it is charming and funny but it also shows how dangerous it is if you do not fight for your freedom,” Jones added. “It shows what happens to you if you do not fight for that. To me, as an artist and as an African American woman, that is a very real fight. Every single day,” she said.

“Fefu” stresses theater’s importance in that fight. As Emma (Sadieh Rifai) tells the women: “Life istheater.Theatreis life. If we’re showing what life is, can be, we must dotheatre.”

“In some ways it’s a period piece,” Kropp concluded. “But in more ways, it’s undeniably about right now.”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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