The Rewards of Fully Immersive Theatre

Cast of FEFU AND HER FRIENDS, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (photo: Enci Box)

When this writer first saw a 1980s production of Fefu and Her Friends, by the late Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornés, he gloried in its structure. The eight female characters played together for the first and last scenes; but for the middle, the theatre created four separate rooms so that the audience, divided into quarters, could spy on the action, sometimes mere inches away from the performers, who repeated their supposedly private conversations four times.

In the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s revival, a second theatre in the complex has been reconfigured for this remarkable work. But beyond its novel conception is Fornés’s poetic dialogue and dark, rich, cerebral ending that elevates Fefu, here directed with great sensitivity by Denise Blasor, who also co-created the splendid costume design with Josh LaCour. Fefu (a galvanizing Tiffany Cole) has invited the women into her 1930s New England home to prepare for a presentation to educators. But we see the women discuss, communally and in pairs, their life predicaments including a broken marriage, a floundering lesbian love affair, and in a never strident though stylized way, how minimized they feel in their paternalistic orbits.

The aforementioned roundelay for the mobile audience hits home very hard, most especially with the wheelchair bound Julia, who is played with great passion and heartbreaking pain by Sandy Duarte. Her monologue is in a parallel world, where she can furiously throw her body about and fight off hallucinations that are a direct result of a head injury. Fornés’s command of language obviates the need for traditional storytelling and lets us enter the lives of the characters.

Another nontraditional approach to theatrical staging is in various locations of Los Angeles. Doctor Rocket’s Twilight Carnival is a series of eight half-hour experiences for one audience member at a time. The company, Nocturnal Fandango, on one hand, has taken the idea of “immersive theatre” to a new level. While both time, price and locations limit the viewer’s ability to participate in all pieces, they are all basically structured around characters who talk with, physically guide and even threaten audience members.

For example, the shows attended included The Museum of Mostly Human Oddities, performed inside a recreational vehicle with three players who have admittedly bizarre abilities. Inside the house next to the RV was Agatha’s Breakaway Vegan Muffin Café, wherein a lustful and overly friendly couple offer the attendee juice and muffins, only to reveal that they seem to be part of a cult.

The advantage of this immersive entertainment is the feeling that you are in a world where almost anything is possible, if you let go of your inhibitions. In fact, Nocturnal Fandango asks you to fill out a questionnaire, determining how far you wish to play along, including simulated violence and getting undressed. The young players are committed and are solid improvisers. Yet building the shows in thirty minute segments limits the possibilities for story, as does relying on the individual audience member to provide a significant portion of the dialogue.

Nevertheless, any concept that changes the standard notion of sitting in a darkened crowd, distant from the actors, is worth exploring.

Author, screenwriter, journalist, playwright, literary consultant. Books include REVOLUTION’S END and BECOMING JIMI HENDRIX.

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