Upon asking New Moon's founding members (thespian vets all around) about the urge to start a new theater company (where it came from and all that), I was astounded by a troubled silence that seemed much tenser than necessary. There sat Eastern Hale, the elder statesman of the group. He's taught and directed at colleges in Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee and stage-managed at Lincoln Center. As an actor he once took over for Martin Sheen as Jack the Ripper in the Lulu plays. To his right sat David Newsome, a former resident designer for New Stage Theatre in Jackson, Mississippi. To Hale's left sat Bert Godwin, who, having taken a long break from performing, still boasts a rÇsumÇ any working actor might envy. None, it seemed, could answer "why."
"Challenge," Godwin says at length, fighting with the word. "We want to do things that challenge us. And that challenge audiences."
"We want to do plays that designers want to design, that directors want to direct, and that actors want to act in," Hale says.
Fefu and Her Friends, the nascent company's first production, is both minimal in design and obsessive. Using only furniture and hand props to define the space, the set is a blend of fabric, crystal, wood, and Depression glass. What isn't lovely, light, and fragile beyond imagining is lovely, heavy, and built to withstand centuries of war and bad weather. It's a fine example of how little gestures can say a lot. Solid performances by some of Memphis' finest actresses speak for themselves, and it would be difficult to imagine subject matter more accessible and impenetrable at the same time. So, by the standards they've set for themselves, the New Moon's debut is an unqualified success.
Fefu (a remarkably subtle Janie Paris) begins the play on a provocative note. "My husband married me to have a constant reminder of how loathsome women are," she tells friends gathered in her parlor to organize the kind of do-gooder event that women of good breeding planned when careers for ladies were positively out of the question. Like Eve Ensler minus the populism, playwright Irene Fornes works with the notion that women are seen by men as superficial beauties whose inside parts are filled with slime, gook, and decay. Women, Fefu suggests, may not see themselves in the same revolting light, but they suspect something is rotten at their core all the same. Moments after her initial pronouncement, Fefu picks up a rifle, walks to the door, and shoots her husband -- an act that shocks everyone unaccustomed to the ritual. It's only blanks, you see: a little game the couple plays. They are deeply in love.
Fefu begins and ends rather traditionally with the actors on one side of the stage lights, and the audience on the other. But the second act changes things a bit. The audience is broken up into groups and taken to various parts of the theater (Fefu's estate), where scenes occur simultaneously. These scenes are, by and large, confessional and intimate, far less formal than anything that takes place on stage. The centerpiece, however, is the tragic hallucination of Julia (Alice Rainey), who is either the victim of a mysterious neurological disorder or a woman who has simply given up.
Fornes proposes that women exist together in two states. First, there are the gaggles, where a constant chatter is maintained but very little is ever actually said. And then there are the one-on-one conversations where every effort is made to avoid looking one another in the eye. Should two women ever really lock eyes in understanding, Fornes says, "the world might explode." The two performance conventions allow the audience to observe Fornes' theory in action.
The play ends with Fefu once again taking up the rifle to shoot a rabbit. But this time it's not loaded with blanks. One shot kills a rabbit and the afflicted Julia. Was this an accident? A mercy killing? A bit of metaphor cloaked in magical realism? It's impossible to say, and clearly the playwright hopes to keep us guessing. The play ends with no tidy lessons, the stage cluttered with loose ends. It ends, like life, not neatly but in a bloody mess of unfinished business.
"We want people to be entertained," Hale says of his company's mission. "We want to give them something they can take away from the theater and talk about."
Hale and company have defiantly given audiences something to talk about. Rarely does intermission chatter focus solely on the production at hand, but that was the topic of debate during Fefu's two intermissions. Conversations ranged from discussions about the oppression of women in the 1930s to the confused declaration "I think those actors are just plain trippin'." Both were appropriate and no doubt welcome responses.
Fefu and Her Friends is at TheatreWorks through May 1st.