María Irene Fornés

Conducting "The Conduct of Life"

Preview of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

The second show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season opens tonight. The Conduct of Life, written by María Irene Fornés, was first produced in 1985. Fornés, who died last year, was one of the foremost avant-garde U.S. playwrights of her time. Jecamiah M. Ybañez, a Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Summer Cabaret and a 2019 MFA of the Yale School of Drama, directs. For Ybañez, who admits being drawn to “gritty material,” one of the attractions of doing the play at this time comes from its poetic handling of political questions. 

As Ybañez sees it, we, as a culture, are “more educated, knowledgeable, and aware” than ever before. We have so much information easily available, but “the question becomes: how do we behave? How do we move forward—do we act on what we know or ignore it? How do we respond to the inequalities in our society?” Fornés play, as the title suggests, is about how we conduct our lives—whether we “blatantly or subversively” take action.


Like Martin Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, which was Ybañez’s thesis show at YSD last winter, The Conduct of Life takes place in a “nondescript Latin American country under a military dictator.” At the time the play was written, the events of the play could be in “almost any of a number of Latin American countries,” Ybañez said. Indeed, Fornés’ play, in focusing on the domestic life of a couple whose husband, a military officer, is attempting to rise in political power, recalls a couple in Seven Spots where the brutality of military service during a civil war impacts a soldier’s relation to his wife. Fornés’ play more directly confronts “the obsession with power” on the part of a military man in a corrupt system, Ybañez said. Conduct depicts acts of violence “in a specific context,” where scenes of “child abduction, sexual assault, and interrogation” show the impact of abusive power on “othered bodies.” Ybañez mentioned the audience advisory on the Summer Cab’s website: “This production contains depictions of sexual violence, disturbing and explicit images and audio, coarse language, and simulated gunshots.”

For Ybañez, the attractions of the play are twofold. He sees the play as “a thriller” where “information is withheld.” The audience has to react to the imperfect evidence Fornés provides within a context of political unrest and violence. The typical element of the thriller—that secrets will come to light—is complicated by Fornés’ method. Fornés’ earliest influence as a dramatist was a production of Beckett’s En attendant Godot she saw in Paris. At the time she was a painter who had studied with the abstract theorist and artist Hans Hoffmann. In Conduct, Fornés uses an avant-garde form of nineteen vignettes, some too short to be considered individual scenes, where the narrative connections are not always clear, so that viewers must infer the particular connotations of what they see.

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

The play has a cast of five, all of whom have done memorable work at the term-time Cabaret. Orlando (John Evans Reese) is a ruthless man married to Letitia (Juliana Aiden Martínez), who speaks with some social conscience. Orlando’s friend, Alejo, is played by Devin White and Letitia’s maid, Olimpia, by Nefesh Cordero Pino (the only cast member also seen in Bakkhai, the season opener). Amandla Jahava, who graduated from YSD in May and worked on several projects at the Cabaret last season, returns to play Nena, a child Orlando has kidnapped. Outside the house in which the action takes place, Ybañez said, the government is trying to obtain absolute power over its people.

In working with his cast, Ybañez has been concentrating on the rhythm and the tempo of the vignettes. Each has “a time signature,” he said, and it is necessary to “feel the shift” in a scene. Fornés eschews naturalistic dialogue, preferring to let characters speak in ways that suggest unspoken thoughts. Her theatrical palette includes Theater of the Absurd and the Brechtian effort to alienate audiences from naturalistic comforts for the sake of political effect. Her style and intentions are mercurial and make for challenging theater.

“There’s no neat tie-up,” Ybañez said of the play’s conclusion, but he stressed how the play suggests that even the powerless “have a certain agency,” and that even victims of unjust systems, Fornés indicates through Nena, must decide how “to live each day the best way possible.” The notion that even those who perpetrate criminal violence may be in pain is one that Fornés is able to bring to light through the tensions between her characters. In a time when we find polarized accusations of evil on each side of our political divides, Fornés’ play may have a resonance relevant to how we might conduct ourselves differently.


The Conduct of Life
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Yale Summer Cabaret Verano
June 21-29, 2019

For tickets and information regarding showtimes and dining, go here.

Cafe Rrrwha?

You know the drill: one age’s rebellion is another age’s nostalgia act. That’s in popular culture. In the fine arts, it tends to be: one age’s rebellion is another age’s academic assignment. In the pop world, nothing ages as fast as the parental generation’s youth; in the fine arts, it’s all a bit like the nefarious character played by John Huston in Chinatown (1974) says: “Politicians, old buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” In the fine arts, it’s academic study that confers respectability. Dada, pataphysics, cubists, Theater of the Absurd, Theatre of Cruelty, the Beats—they’re all in museums and on syllabi. And what gets lost, often, is what made it all so exciting in the first place. Enter The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, the show currently playing at the Yale Cabaret, conceived and directed by dramaturgy student David E. Bruin, an effort to stage early works by María Irene Fornés and Edward Albee—darlings of theater and drama coursework—as though Greenwich Village were still inhabited by bohemians and not pop culture elites. We’re not at the Yale Cab, we’re at Café Ubu (named after Alfred Jarry’s comic-absurdist-tragic figure) and, as the dated posters and portraits on the walls of Reid Thompson's set will tell you, it’s around 1962. JFK hasn’t been assassinated yet and the Beatles are still in Liverpool.

It’s to the credit of Bruin and his cast that they play the material—including the introductory bits that include some squabbling about a petition to stop that freeway extension Robert Moses is planning for the Village—straight, without any hint of ‘beatnik’ send-ups. The point is, one quickly gathers, the drama student of today might well be pining for the days before theatrical fellowships and “courses on X”—the days when the likes of Albee and Fornés hung out in collectivities that were already looking back to ad hoc artist congeries like dada and other manifesto-spouting “movements.” Remember when it wasn’t art if you got paid for it? And it wasn’t for a grade either. Hey, kinda like Yale Cabaret . . .

Crazy Shepherds is an instructive and entertaining evening. Plays like Fornés’ The Successful Life of 3 and Albee’s The Sandbox should resist even blackbox staging. These are plays for a cabaret, a café, a living room, almost. Maybe a playground’s actual sandbox (do those still exist?) for the latter. Bruin and company rightly grasp that to do such work justice you have to be willing to go back to its time to see it as it might have been. Historians of the arts have to do this; theater audiences much less, and it’s great to see knowing dramaturgs and others giving it a shot and taking us along with them.

And you certainly get your money’s worth: not only Successful Life and Sandbox, but also a romp through a truncated take on Jarry’s Ubu roi (with a very spirited Ubu from Brendan Pelsue) and a performance piece featuring bits from Part III of Howl. Annelise Lawson, reciting, is the star of the evening as she also plays a man (who imagines himself as Zorro at one point) in Successful Life, Ubu’s queen in Ubu roi, and, very effectively, the old woman in Sandbox, as well as going into electroshock convulsions for the Howl recital (Howl is dedicated to Allen Ginsberg’s fellow inmate at Columbia Psychiatric Institute, Carl Solomon, who did receive electroshock treatment at Rockland State Hospital).

Elsewhere there’s tasteful violin accompaniment by Eli Epstein-Deutsch and atmospheric vocalizing by Jenelle Chu, who also plays the woman in Successful Life, a ditzy symbol of female emptiness—or is that an empty symbol of feminine ditziness—while Lawson and Pelsue (the latter in a mode reminiscent of Dick York on Bewitched) enact an absurdist’s take on “masculine rivalry” (yes, that was once a buzz term). Chu is also a patient “mommy” to Pelsue’s “daddy” as they wait for granny (Lawson) to give up the ghost in Sandbox. The plays by Fornés and Albee both demonstrate the phase of incipient genius, still. And the evening is best if you can forget you’re watching YSD students playing at their grandparents’ rebellion and imagine you’re watching amateur theatricals reinvent theater.

At the end of the evening, a hat is passed, but, rather than pitching in, the audience is asked to extract fortune-cookie-like one-liners. Many in the audience, no doubt, won’t realize the lines are taken from William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” (c. 1790, following the French Revolution); “everything old is new again,” as the song says. And some things are so innovative they can never become conventional.


The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion Conceived and directed by David E. Bruin Featuring: Maria Irene Fornes’ The Successful Life of 3 and Edward Albee’s The Sandbox

Cast: David E. Bruin, Jenelle Chu, Eli Epstein-Deutsch, Annelise Lawson, Brendan Pelsue, Gretchen Wright; Dramaturg: Phillip Howze; Set: Reid Thompson; Lights: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer/Sound: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Costumes: Asa Benally; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Producer: Melissa Zimmerman


Yale Cabaret March 20-22, 2014