Riverside Theatre’s production of ‘Fefu and Her Friends’ pays tribute to legendary playwright and empowers women

From March 10 to April 2, Riverside Theatre is presenting ‘Fefu and Her Friends,’ a production written by the legendary playwright Maria Irene Fornés. Directed by a member of the Fornés Institute, the production empowers women and female relationships.


Dimia Burrell

The outside of the Riverside Theatre is seen at the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City on Friday, April 8, 2022.

Stella Shipman and Emma Gaughan

The stage is a place where theater comes to life, and the characters share their stories with the audience and build a world — most of the time. In Riverside Theatre’s production of “Fefu and Her Friends,” the stage is just one of the many places where the characters come alive.

The show opened March 10 and will run until April 2 at Riverside Theatre. The show takes place in three parts, the second of which involves the audience being split into groups and brought to different rooms of the theater, where four scenes are set up. Each group views each scene in a different order, allowing for different interpretations of the story.

The movement of the audience is not the only unique part of the play — the story is also unique in its pacing and arc. The show is an intimate look into the lives of eight women who are brought together to Fefu’s house for a reason that is not immediately clear to the audience. These women each have distinct personalities and relationships with one another.

Juliana Frey-Méndez, the play’s director, has been involved with Riverside Theatre since she was young, participating in acting workshops and attending productions. After graduating from high school and attending college, Frey-Méndez returned to Iowa City, her hometown, every summer for Riverside’s Shakespeare Fest.

As a Latina theatremaker, Frey-Méndez wanted to showcase diverse and expansive Latine experiences in her works. After earning her graduate degree, she spent four years in New York studying how to apply a larger budget on a larger scale to effectively portray those experiences.

Frey-Méndez decided to pursue the play “Fefu and Her Friends” after exploring the new Riverside space and suggesting the production to Adam Knight, Riverside’s producing artistic director, who loved the idea.

Originally written and produced in 1977 by the legendary playwright María Irene Fornés, the play was influenced by events of the era like the Roe v. Wade decision and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Fornés demonstrated feminism with this work by making it necessary for the audience to believe the play’s female characters.

Frey-Méndez wanted to explore the relationships between these women and their strength when they are united.

“This is a play about what can happen when women come together, and it’s an exploration of the internal worlds that women have inside of them and how they interact with other women and their other worlds and the society as a whole,” Frey-Méndez said. “When I talk about this play, I like to say that this is a play that takes place in our world, in a world like ours, but not our world. It has a very cinematic film noir feel to it.”

The Cuban-American playwright, theater director, and teacher Fornés worked primarily off-Broadway during her theater career. She won numerous awards before she died in 2018.

The Fornés Institute, established by the Latinx Theatre Commons, recognizes and preserves the works of Fornés. Frey-Méndez is a member of the Fornés Institute, and not only did she bring the production of “Fefu and Her Friends” to Riverside, but she also introduced Riverside to the Celebrando Fornés initiative, a call for schools and universities to incorporate more Fornés content in their classrooms.

The production of “Fefu and Her Friends” pays tribute to a playwright whose work has gone largely unnoticed by most theater fans and is a powerful play about womanhood. Knight described it as a chance for Riverside to “present and acknowledge one of the great 20th century masters,” and that it is a play that most people get to see once in a lifetime.

“This is a story that is from the 1970s and set in the 1930s that still speaks to the now and is written by a playwright that most accomplished playwrights think of as one of the truly great masters,” Knight said. “And yet, Fornés is a playwright that many occasional theater fans don’t know about or haven’t seen before.”

Following its habit of breaking away from the traditional play, “Fefu and Her Friends” had an intense and sudden ending that left more questions unanswered than answered, allowing for audience interpretation. For some audience members at a performance on March 19, the ending left them at a loss for words as they considered the story, including Emily Coussens, longtime Riverside Theatre spectator.

“You were just seeing slices of life and conversation that left so many intriguing questions of what happened before, but it was really interesting,” Coussens said.

Coussens added that her favorite part of the show was the second part, where the audience was moved to different parts of the theater. She found it interesting to be able to see the many different parts of the building and backstage areas.

“There’s a lot of structural things happening with Julia in the seat,” said Coussens. “I think we have a lot of thoughts about that. You got to see different little intimate conversations that were going on. Things that were happening. It’s really cool.”