The Conduct of Life

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

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.

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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.