Maria Irene Fornes

Power Play

Review of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

Dysfunction reigns in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, continuing at the Yale Summer Cabaret tonight through Saturday, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez. Fornés’ plays have a mysterious quality and a fascinating rhythm that works best in intimate settings, which makes the Cabaret a good place to see this provocative play.

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’  The Conduct of Life  (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

The dysfunction is political, not only the naked bid for power in an unnamed country ruled by a military dictatorship, but, more directly, domestic, in the sexual politics of the household where a lieutenant named Orlando (John Evans Reese) lords it over his well-intentioned wife Leticia (Juliana Martinez). They have a friend in fellow officer Alejo (Devin White) who tends to laugh appropriately at Orlando’s sallies, while retaining, perhaps, more soul than Orlando. And Leticia is attended by a maid, Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), who seems to stand as an emblem of the simple folk and is both an accomplice of Orlando and a confidante to Leticia.

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

At first, the play might seem to offer a Chekhovian exploration of boredom, ambition and humiliation, but, importantly, there’s also Nena (Amandla Jahava), a young girl kidnapped by Orlando and held prisoner in a warehouse and later in the couple’s basement. The glimpses of rape and torture we get through Christopher Evans’ projections are harrowing, as if we were watching arty surveillance footage, but nothing we see quite equals in discomfort the sound of Jahava’s distraught whimpers and sobs. It’s unnerving.

Orlando, who opens the play doing calisthenics and giving himself motivational advice on how to climb higher among the brass, becomes an interrogator. In an early dialogue with Alejo, about a prisoner who died under questioning, Orlando prides himself on his brutal lack of sympathy. He seems the perfect man for the job, except perhaps too indifferent to outcomes. In other words, there are standards, even in dehumanizing tactics, and Orlando may be his own worst enemy. We get a fuller sense of his view of himself when we see him interact with poor, frightened Nena, a girl he picked up and forced himself on. It’s his need for her that drives Orlando, a passion for dominance that also dominates him.

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

The triangle between Orlando, Leticia and Nena is where Fornés’ interests lie, to let us see glimpses of darkly sadistic realizations of a family dynamic and to show us the powers that be and the powerless. In the latter view, Leticia is of interest as not quite either. She’s not the equal of Orlando, either politically or in terms of physical strength or cunning, nor is she as powerless as Nena is. An amazing scene late in the play comes when Nena and Olympia, who takes pity on the prisoner as well as showing a vicarious interest in her odd life, are at the table and are joined by Leticia, who asks “what are we talking about?” There sits wife, prisoner, and maid, and Fornés implies they might all easily be figures for the role of Woman in patriarchal society.

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

And yet, in director’s Ybañez hands, the play never veers into outright allegory or satire. The sure-handed naturalism of the approach is greatly abetted by the way these actors—all current students at the Yale School of Drama but for Jahava, a recent graduate—inhabit their roles.

As Orlando, John Evans Reese brings a boyishness to the role that completely suits the small-time tyrant. He’s impetuous, sensitive of his dignity, needy, and erratic. As Alejo, Devin White has a cheery cynicism but late in the play shows more character. Juliana Martinez’s Leticia is a minor dame who might like to be a grande dame, helping the poor and trying to avoid the implications of her lifestyle. She might be seen as vapid, but Martinez brings a sullen gravitas to Leticia that makes her intriguing. Nefesh Cordero Pino plays Olympia with the knowing earthiness of those who have no illusions about what is necessary to get along in the world of their social superiors. And Amandla Jahava’s Nena is the heart of the play: the child as Christ, a girl who has introjected the selflessness of the sacrificial victim willing to suffer for others. Her views come out, in Jahava’s wonderfully fresh performance, as not at all deluded or debased.

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

The stage is a long marble-looking plinth stretching into a space near the Exit door that acts as the basement, foregrounding the couple’s house with a table and chairs and a phone-stand as minimal furnishings. The warehouse space is provided by videos so that we’re unaware of Nena’s predicament when they’re turned off, unlike other productions where the prisoner is visible throughout.

Told in short vignettes with blackouts, Fornés play maintains a somewhat arch tone toward the lives it asks us to contemplate. We don’t really settle in as we would with a more continuous structure, and that’s deliberate—to keep us guessing. The force of the situations propels the drama to its violent conclusion in this gripping play, but one senses that Fornés’ script would reward a slightly more quizzical rendering.

 

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

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin Orellana; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Amanda Luke; Intimacy Consultant: Sam Tirrell

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Amandla Jahava, Juliana Martinez, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 21-29, 2019

Primordial Struggle

Review of Mud, Yale Cabaret

María Irene Fornés’ Mud, now at the Yale Cabaret, directed by third-year actor Patrick Madden, has the compression of a parable, with scenic shifts reminiscent of Beckett’s knife-edge comedies. The play charts a progress of debility, with, in this production, a mix of wryness and weirdness. It’s haunting theater and that’s in part due to a careful creation of atmosphere, with scenic design by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, lighting by Emma Deane, sound design and music by Frederick Kennedy and Liam Bellman-Sharpe, and spare but well-designed costumes by Sarah Woodham. The play takes place in a space of intense confrontation and supplication, with key freezes that seem hieratic.

Much hinges on Danielle Chaves’ performance as Mae, a woman of no means whose job is pressing clothes—on the kitchen table, the main prop of the set—while tending to Lloyd (Devin White), a slouch of man who has taken sick. Though there’s enough realism to suggest depths of rural poverty and ignorance, the prevailing tone has nothing to do with social reform and everything to do with whatever, we imagine, separates the human from the animal.

Lloyd (Devin White), Mae (Danielle Chaves)

Lloyd (Devin White), Mae (Danielle Chaves)

And that’s why Mae is so key. If she’s played as a naïf or a struggling woman seeking to better herself, we move into a different realm. Chaves plays her with a steely self-possession, letting us see that, regardless of her circumstances, her will drives the play. Her trajectory takes her from care-giver to desirer to object of desire to—well, I don’t want to give it away. Suffice to say, she leads us to the heart of what Fornés shows to be the basic stuff of life. And it is to this production’s credit that the final image is debased, brutal, sad, and quite beautiful.

The play begins with Mae cajoling Lloyd to seek out a doctor, as they discuss his impotence as one of his disease’s symptoms. We might suspect that the disease is a symptom of a greater dysfunction between the sexes, particularly when Lloyd insists he is able to ejaculate on his own. It’s an exchange that is both funny in its directness and appalling in its unvarnished crudity. The exchange recalls Godot’s joke about death by hanging being worth it for the ejaculation, but in terms of a general condition. Lloyd is a “poor, forked creature,” reduced to sexual mechanism.

When Lloyd does at last get a pamphlet describing his condition, Mae can’t understand it and brings in a more educated man, Henry (Brandon E. Burton) to read it to them, with what becomes an echo of Lucky pontificating for the benefit of Vladimir and Estragon. It all falls on deaf ears, but Mae falls in love with Henry’s brain and so he is invited to stay. The new configuration reduces Lloyd to the role of a family pet as he sleeps beneath the table with Henry enjoying his bed.

Mae (Danielle Chaves), Lloyd (Devin White), Henry (Brandon E. Burton)

Mae (Danielle Chaves), Lloyd (Devin White), Henry (Brandon E. Burton)

Mae’s pitch to Henry shows her as sexual mechanism dressed in an appeal to Henry’s pride in himself. There are many such moments—another is when Mae’s reading from a textbook about starfish angers Lloyd, and another is when Henry queries Mae about her relation to Lloyd and receives a tale about her father, a foundling, and a relation between Mae and Lloyd that is almost incestuous but which she likens to animals mating.

Lloyd gets his own back when Henry suffers a fall that mostly paralyzes him, leading to two other scenes both comic and wrenching: Lloyd tries feeding Henry who drools and spits out a glop that puts us in mind of ejaculate, and, in another sexual mechanism scene, Henry insists he is still virile and drags his failing body to Mae as if pulled forward by sheer lust. In their Cab debuts, White and Burton acquit themselves well, playing the shifts in Lloyd and Henry as two challenged by fate and coping by means of a maleness that proves indomitable no matter how debilitated. White renders well Lloyd's fierce neediness and scary mood swings, and Burton makes Henry a sympathetic man with an eye to his own status who remains remarkably dignified throughout. Important scenes involving money take us into additional areas of rivalry and payback.

In the end, this triangle seems poised to assume any number of allegorical readings, but, as is the case with the best theater, bearing witness to its presentation is a form of participation, requiring contemplative attention and a certain primordial identification that is richly rewarding.

 

Mud
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Patrick Madden

Producer: Leandro Zaneti; Scenic Design: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Lighting Design: Emma Deane; Sound Design & Original Music: Frederick Kennedy, Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Production Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Technical Director: David Phelps

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Devin White

Yale Cabaret
February 22-24, 2018