ACT immerses audience into captivating Fefu

The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés includes (from left) Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu and Marga Gomez as Cecilia. BELOW: Taking place in various spots around The Strand, Fefu immerses its audience in scenes like this one in the lobby with Castellanos and Goldfield on a balcony. Photos by Kevin Berne.

There are actors in American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her friends that I would travel continents to see. I would climb flights of stairs and even sit on the floor to get to see them perform. The good news about Fefu is that it’s not continents away – it’s down on Market Street in a Strand Theater that has been transformed, in its theatrical way, into a New England country home full of interesting people. You will, however, have to climb stairs (or take the elevator) and sit on the floor (if you want to) because this is an immersive production that takes you all over the building.

With its premiere in 1977, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu (pronounced FEH-foo) emerged as a theatrical experiment in feminism. Set in 1935 during a reunion of college friends, the all-women cast explores their relationships to each other and to a world that desperately wants men and women to conform to accepted gender roles.

There’s not a traditional plot, but that’s not really the point here. It’s all about discovery and play. We first meet the eight characters as they arrive at Fefu’s house for a weekend of fun and rehearsal for an upcoming charity event. The audience is seated in the theater, and the characters inhabit the lovely home designed by Tanya Orellana in a traditional proscenium setting. The tone that emerges under Pam MacKinnon’s direction is one of joviality, introspection and the ever-present possibility of surprise (good and bad).

For the second of the play’s three parts, the audience is separated into four groups (your color-coded wristband lets you know which group you’re in) and taken into various parts of Fefu’s house. Our group first headed to the lobby, which had been transformed into Fefu’s garden, complete with grass (of the artificial variety), gorgeous Monet-like projections (by Hana S. Kim) and a real-life plant exchange (bring a plant, take a plant, so if you’re going definitely bring a plant!). Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) and Emma (Cindy Goldfield) have an al fresco chat about, among other things, how none of us talks about our genitals enough.


Then we headed backstage into a dimly lit room (Russell H. Champa is responsible for the gorgeous lighting throughout the building), where Julia (a mesmerizing Lisa Anne Porter) wrestled with demons. And then it was upstairs to the top of the building where a black-box space has been turned into two performance spaces (with a fair amount of sound bleed between the two stages). In one room, the study, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) talk about French verbs, dreams and nightmarish doctors, and in another, the kitchen (an absolutely stunning design), Paula (Stacy Ross) chats with Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) before rekindling an old flame with the enigmatic Cecilia (Marga Gomez).

Some characters wander out of one short scene and into another, which is thrilling – like turning the play house into a playhouse, and we’re all kids having a blast playing pretend (but the conversations are decidedly not childlike). It’s that sense of discovery again – poking into corners of The Strand that audience members don’t usually see and, with all the fanciful design touches along our travel routes, feeling embraced by the idea of pretending to be in some other place in some other time with people who were imagined into being by a playwright with a lot to say. Kudos to MacKinnon and her team (notably Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz, whose team works with military precision and maximum affability) for such sterling execution of the Fefu challenge.

After intermission, audience members return to their seats in the theater for the final section of the play. We know these women better now, so the intricacies of the relationships, the shared histories and the personal traumas all carry more weight. The miracle of the actors is that they do feel connected by years of events, so their ability to shift from joy and frivolity to deep sadness and despair feels lived. There’s unevenness in the performances in some scenes, but that can’t obscure some stunning work by Castellanos as the gregarious but enigmatic Fefu, Goldfield as the effervescent Emma, Ross as the deceptively grounded Paula and Porter as the tormented Julia.

There’s no end to the discovery as Fornés allows us to spend 2 1/2 hours immersed in what women are thinking – a significant undertaking executed with a great deal of spirit and fun. In that sense, you can definitely say that hanging out with Fefu and Her Friends is a seriously good time.

María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Marga Gomez: So old, so funny


Marga Gomez gets a horizontal groove on in her new solo show Not Getting Any Younger at The Marsh in San Francisco. Photos by David Wilson

Though hardly a senior citizen, Marga Gomez needs to talk about her age. That doesn’t mean she’ll tell you her age, but it does mean she’ll regale you with her thoughts on the aging process for 80 minutes in her new solo theatrical venture, Not Getting Any Younger at The Marsh in San Francisco.

Probably best known as a stand-up comic, Gomez says she’s considered a pioneer for being one of the first out lesbian comics. But she hates being called a pioneer because it makes her sound old – like she traveled to gigs in a covered wagon. But Gomez is a theatrical force as well. This is her ninth solo show, and if you’ve seen any of her previous theater work (especially the shows about her show-biz parents), you know how artfully she blends the high entertainment value of stand-up comedy with the more deeply felt levels of autobiographical storytelling.

It is, frankly, news that the ever-youthful Gomez is not getting any younger. She’s as spry as ever (just wait until you see her do the twist and then demonstrate some more contemporary dances moves she likes to call “the anal twist”). For someone who looks so good and is working at the top of her considerable game, it’s somewhat surprising that Gomez is so worked up about landing in mid-middle age.

One of the key components of Younger is that Gomez intends to reveal her actual age. In storytelling terms, this is called suspense. If you look up her Wikipedia page (which she says she composed herself while stoned), the birth date reads: June 19, 1960 [citation needed]. Citation needed indeed. In attempting to shave a few years off her age, Gomez admits, she actually made herself older than she intended. Or so she’d like us to believe.

In her laugh-out-loud show, Gomez discusses visiting the amusement park Freedomland in the Bronx when she was young. Curiously, the Wikipedia page for that park states that opening day was June 19, 1960. It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find out Gomez’s real name. Just a casual breeze through her press clips, you see one reference to the move she made from Long Island to San Francisco when she was 20. Another story places that move in 1979.


Whatever her age, whether she’s in her early 50s or whether, like her mother, she holds to an ever less believable 21, Gomez is ageless because she’s a dynamic performer and afunny and talented writer. Show business is such a warped world that age can mean life or death to a performer, especially a woman, who is likely to be more harshly judged for having the nerve to age (see Joan Rivers [citation needed]). In a perfect world, Gomez wouldn’t care how old she was because age bears no relation whatsoever to her gifts as a performer. The years have certainly helped shape her into the performer she is today (thank you, years), but they have yet to diminish any of her spark.

Originally directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang in a workshop earlier this year, Younger is really less about age than it is about lying. Referring back to that pesky Wikipedia page, there’s a mention that Gomez is known for her honesty. Of course we know on that very page she’s lying about her age. In setting about the creation of this show, she reveals that her mother lied about her age for much of her life. That’s one of many thoughts she explored in the writing process, which took place primarily in her neighborhood Starbuck’s (“an atmosphere conducive to writing about lies”). Over many soy lattes, she worried about Social Security ceasing to exist exactly on her 65th birthday. She also fretted over schoolchildren who were ever-present in the coffee shop (“What could possibly be so bad in their lives that they need coffee?”) and even more so about the babies, whom she does not like (“They’re stupid adults waiting to happen.”).

She hides from a former lover who has let her hair go naturally gray, while Gomez admits to having had gray hair since childhood (you can’t see it, she says, because now it’s internal).

Like any person talking about the aging process, Gomez has to let out her inner curmudgeon, the one that wants to share that she grew up before the advent of the Internet, that she knows what it’s like to have used a rotary phone, that she studied arithmetic in school (not math) and that she remembers Valencia Street before the trees and hipsters when it was mostly mariachi bands and lesbians. Her funniest curmudgeon story involves a trip to that nightmarish palace of eternal youth, Forever 21. Suffice it to say that if Gomez ever thanks you for anything, don’t answer with “uh huh.” And whatever you do, DO NOT call her ma’am. “That’s a word that can give you arthritis,” she says.

Another show high point involves a childhood friend named Lisa, who liked to recruit her friends for the purpose of teasing and taunting old people. Gomez reacts to that by forming her own short-lived do-gooder club called Old People Helper. When she goes to Lisa’s house for a birthday party, the festivities are presided over by her father, an ex-Marine who was tossed for being too aggressive. If you don’t think Gomez can be an effective ex-Marine, you sadly underestimate her skills as an actor. Judi Dench could only dream of being such a scary Marine.

There are several moments in Younger when Gomez reveals some of what’s really going on with her, as when she mentions that she’s six years away from the age at which her dad died and seven years away from the age her mom died. That, more than anything we hear, makes you understand what all this fussing over age is really about. Marga Gomez may not be getting any younger, but she’s getting funnier. And braver.


Marga Gomez’s Not Getting Any Younger continues an extended run through Dec. 17 at The Marsh Studio Theater, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco.Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 415-282-3055 or visit

Bay Area’s best theater bets

The summer season is starting to, pardon the expression, heat up, though anyone who has been through a Bay Area summer knows that summer does not necessarily mean heat around here.

– Lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my! The first outdoor show of the year opened last week on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin: The Mountain Play’s The Wizard of Oz runs weekends through June 15. All shows are at 1 p.m. The views are spectacular, and the show’s probably pretty good, too. Tickets are $25-$39. Call 415-383-1100 or visit for information.

Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations in Short Scenes with Live Actors at the Berkeley City Club. Photo by Marty Sohl

Brookside Repertory Theatre in Berkeley presents Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations in Short Scenes with Live Actors (whew!) by Mae Ziglin Meidav. Written by Brookside’s artistic director, this comic biography delves into the hallucinations that fed Kafka’s creativity. The show continues through June 29 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $16-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

– Check out Marga Gomez’s work-in-progress Long Island Iced Latina at The Marsh, which will have its premiere at the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub in New York. Another in her series of comedic memoirs, the new show is about Gomez’s awkward adolescence (is there any other kind?) in Massapequa, Long Island, where life was equal parts cultural confusion, chronic virginity, mother-daughter instability and polyester fashion.
The show opens today (May 28) and continues through May 31 at The Marsh Studio Theater, 1074 Valencia St., San Francisco. The bill also includes an excerpt from Samantha Chase’s Lydia’s Funeral Video.
Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

California Shakespeare Theater opens its 2008 season with Pericles, a wacky Shakespeare play involving incest, shipwrecks, tournaments, magicians bringing the dead back to life and, of course, pirates! Minneapolis-based director Joel Sass makes his West Coast directing debut with a highly theatrical re-telling of this odd tale with eight actors playing 50 roles. Previews begin tonight (May 28) and opening is Saturday, May 30. The show continues through June 22 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda (good news for your gas tank: there’s a free shuttle between Orinda BART and the theater). Tickets are $40-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.
You might also want to check out Cal Shakes’ blogs here.