'The Conduct of Life': Theater Review
This challenging feminist critique of annihilating machismo benefits from the sturdy, subtle subtext supplied by an alert and mature company.
Maria Irene Fornes (Fefu and Her Friends, Mud, Abingdon Square), long at the vanguard of New York’s experimental theater scene and winner of no less than nine Obies (including one for The Conduct of Life in 1985), at 84 remains a demanding playwright to grapple with. Coincidentally, a bare three weeks earlier I had attended another production of this same play during the Hollywood Fringe Festival, mounted with in-your-face intensity by The Vagrancy, an appropriately scrappy company that played the action for brute shock, as a no-holds-barred indictment of abusive masculinity. It impressed, but its unmitigated assault left the drama seeming baldly schematic, without undertones, unmodulated in its relentless rage.
Not overly eager to subject myself to its depredations again so soon, my trust in the quarter century track record of City Garage under the direction of Frederique Michel stimulated my curiosity about how differently they might approach the play. And while the words remained familiar, how distinct a sensibility was applied to Fornes’ thorny themes!
Orlando (a lacerating George Villas, impressively bulked up even by current actor standards), a frustrated lieutenant in an unnamed army obvious nevertheless as Argentina under the junta, swears as he does military pushups that he will not let his lover Leticia (Kristina Drager) stand in the way of his marrying for advancement. In the next domestic scene in their center stage parlor, some 10 years later, they are now married, and Orlando has found a new route to recognition, as a skilled torturer for the regime. Swaggeringly sexist and consumingly insecure, Orlando has kidnapped a young adolescent girl, Nena (Nili Rain Segal), whom he rapes and terrorizes first in a warehouse on one side of the stage and later moves into the basement located on the other. In his own mind, he is convinced he loves her.
Leticia wants to educate herself, yet Orlando refuses to allow it. Instead, Leticia mirrors his behaviors in her relationship with her servant Olimpia (a feisty and very short Nicole Gerth) and her own equally blind posturing about her sensitive and feeling nature. She is repelled, she says, at the thought of hunting animals. It’s a sport, Orlando replies dismissively. Without scanting the critique of machismo, Michel teases out even more salient points about how oppression by a privileged class, even in its lower echelons, parallels sexism in its most unbridled, soul-destroying manifestation.
In the process, Fornes’ slippery sense of ambiguity includes leeway for absurd humor, and Michel, a specialist in Ionesco and Moliere, is ever mindful of the comic overtones of exaggerated manners and covert hypocrisies. The laughs are organic, if archly artificial, and add to both the horror and the emotional depth of nearly cartoonishly despicable characters. Fornes is determined to let no one off the hook, not even Nena’s unspeakably violated victim, and Michel and her troupe elicit complexity in suggesting both motivation and culpability.
The result is that Orlando, while never remotely sympathetic, becomes a monster with an inner life. Torturing himself with rationalizations, he is someone capable of inflicting suffering out of his own inescapable existential torment. It is not comforting to find oneself understanding his conflicts while condemning his reprehensible actions.
Fornes has grounded her play firmly within the reality of the Argentine “dirty war", although it has obvious parallels to her own native Cuba under Batista, and while many of its ideological and dramaturgical stylings may be plainly dated, they remain applicable to our own presumably more enlightened age, with its own savage excesses.
In a delicate touch, the actors do not employ Spanish accents, despite the firmly Latin context — though, in a touch that is typical of this fully realized interpretation, they adopt rhythms of speech and patterns of breathing redolent of the cadence of the language. If City Garage does not entirely master the elusive materials Fornes has provided (as if anyone could), it does ensure that her ideas and theatrical sense conquer us.
Director: Frédérique Michel
Writer: Maria Irene Fornes
Producer, Production Design, Set & Lighting: Charles A. Duncombe
Costume Design: Josephine Poinsot
Sound Design: Paul Rubenstein