The Conduct of Life
By Julio Martinez
Hero Theatre at Inner City Arts
Runs Through June 25
Maria Irene Fornes’ 1985 Obie Award–winning play The Conduct of Life is a more brutal examination of the theme perused in her earlier work, Fefu and Her Friends (1977) — women struggling to find their identity within a world ruled by the self-serving, testosterone-driven nature of men. The all-female cast of Fefu dealt with the emerging 1930s feminist movement that was handicapped by the societal need and dependence upon being attached to a male.
Conduct focuses on the male agenda as personified by Orlando (Nick Caballero), a low level Latin-American military officer, who imposes himself on three women, each of whom represent the class structure of his society: his upwardly mobile wife Leticia (Adriana Sevahn), his working-class maid Olympia (Elisa Bocanegra), and the lower-class waif Nena (Antonia Cruz-Kent), whom he has imprisoned and forced to be his sexual slave. The individual ensemble members of this Hero Theatre production, helmed by Latino Theatre Company Artistic Director Jose Luis Valenzuela, do not exhibit comfort with Fornes’s dialogue but are committed to the action.
As if it will elevate his status as a junior officer, Caballero’s Orlando commits himself to vigorous exercise. He finds no solace complaining about his job (the brutal interrogation of prisoners) to an even more junior officer, Alejo (Jonathan Medina). Alejo, who formerly adored Orlando, silently witnesses his emotional breakdown. Meanwhile, Leticia struggles to better herself by learning to read and battling for supremacy in the house over the much more resilient maid Olympia.
Orlando’s only area of total control is over the teenager Nena who he lured off the streets and who is now bound in a dungeon inside his home. Orlando’s periodic savagery over her is usually accompanied by his loving murmurs. He is totally unable to separate the actions of his loins from the needs and aspirations swirling in his mind.
Clarity for Orlando is found within the scenes that he is not physically in. Leticia and Olympia are comedic in their jousts, neither resilient enough to take command of their lives nor to stand up to the man who controls them both. Nena offers a heart-breaking revelation of her despairing life in the gutter to Olympia, but leaves little doubt that it was still a far better fate than existing under the unrelenting need of Orlando. Leticia’s final scene makes a decided statement as to the status of the three women in Orlando’s world.
Director Valenzuela clarifies the relevance of each scene within Forne’s one-hour play, which really isn’t long enough for such a huge theme. The set design of Francois-Pierre Couture gives evidence of the sedate social aspirations of the family, while also displaying the squalor within Orlando’s psyche.