Monday, August 11, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "The Power of Desperation" (on María Irene Fornes' The Conduct of Life)

Having almost accidentally re-encountered the work of María Irene Fornes during the year, I was delighted to discover a production of another Fornes play by a small Los Angeles-area theater company, City Garage. The production I saw, The Conduct of Life, originally premiered two decades after Promenade.  


the power of desperation


María Irene Fornes The Conduct of Life / the production I saw was performed by City Garage, Santa Monica, August 10, 2014.


Fornes’ play The Conduct of Life is superficially one of her most naturalistically-conceived and pessimistic works. The story of the brutal Orlando (George Villas)—who verbally abuses his wife Leticia (Kristina Drager), threatens the family maid Olimpia (Nicole Gerth), and sexually abuses the captive young girl he keeps in the basement, Nena (Nili Rain Segal)—this play, at least in the City Garage production, seems to allow little hope for the human condition. Despite avowing a belief in non-violence and a commitment to self-educate herself, the well-off Leticia gives wide permission to Orlando’s destructive behaviors, ignoring the horrifying cries of the kidnapped Nena, while carefully criticizing Orlando’s obvious flaws as a human being—mostly via telephone to her friends or in a one way conversation with Orlando’s colleague, Alejo (Johnny Paulino). As so many wives locked into abusive situations in which they see their companion’s behavior as partly their own fault, and who overlook other brutalities as an unescapable aspect of love, Leticia is a facilitator, a woman who, in complaining about her husband’s increasing atrocities, simultaneously overlooks them, seeking her own outside solicitations with friends and a secret lover, like Orlando a lieutenant in an unnamed Latin American country—in this production, more apparently located in Cuba, Fornes’ birth home.

      Leiticia, moreover, is also abusive, demanding that Alejo spend hours teaching her all she needs to know about political science so that she might join a discussion group where others will listen to what she says, and, in a more comic manner, maltreating her overworked maid, Olimpia.

      Although Olimpia, in turn, sees the world through the lens of being a servant and projects servitude upon her perceptions of behavior, she also is not entirely passive as she sasses back at Leiticia, refusing, at times, to shop for certain foods her employer would prefer and enacting vengeance upon her through various comic mannerisms and imitations. Unlike Leiticia, Olimpia quite clearly sees the horrors going on in the house, and threatens her master with death. Yet, she too sees herself as incapable to transforming the abnormal behaviors she witnesses around her, feelings reinforced in the City Garage production by the fact that Olimpia is a “little person,” so dwarfed that she can be literally carried away off in necessary moments by the distracted Orlando. To give her credit, it is Olimpia who mothers, calms and permits the tortured child Nena to speak.

     Equally incompetent to change the world around her, Nena is still a child who has been stolen from the street to where she herself has escaped from an orphanage in order to find her impaired grandfather, a beggar who lives in a box on the city’s boulevards. Yet she, like Leticia, has an imagination in which she dreams of a better world, even if it only consists of a bigger box, filled with straw and vented with holes so that when grandfather urinates the water can escape the container where he and she sleeps. Her dream may be a tiny and almost meaningless one, but for her it is everything, a way in which to make the world and herself—whom she psychological defines as being perpetually “dirty”—clean, much like the shirts she has seen being ironed and pressed in the orphanage.

     The troubled lieutenant’s so-called friend, Alejo, describes himself as a former idealist who is now so troubled by watching his acquaintance torturing human beings, that he no longer has any feelings, characterizing himself as impotent. Although he knows the truth about Orlando, he spends most of the play in silence, refusing to attempt any action that may put an end to horror he witnesses—and in that role as silent conspirator, he is perhaps the most culpable of anyone in the play.


 Orlando, admittedly a man enmeshed by his own “degrading sexual passion,” uses his violent urges as an excuse for his behavior. Having married Leticia in an attempt to present himself outwardly as “normal,” he justifies his brutal attacks on Nena as a way to release his dangerous urges that may impede his abilities to rise in the ranks of the military. His real goal, however, is power, and it is his increasing desire for it that leads to his near-constant verbal and sexual attacks on those around him. In his job he has grown into a high position as head torturer, some of whose prisoners die without him even having to touch them, just out of fear. Although Leticia may perceive his obsessively violent behavior as a deluded attempt to express his flawed love—a viewpoint of which at one point even Orlando tries to convince Nena is behind his actions—they are absurd perversions of any noble notion of the qualities he seeks.

     The lofty and nuanced values as expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his The Conduct of Life in 1860, summarized in a series of essays which might almost serve as subtitles for the various interchanges of Fornes’ play—“Fate,” “Power,” “Wealth,” “Culture,” “Behavior,” “Worship,” “Considerations of the Way” (in which Emerson argues humans are indebted to their vices), “Beauty” and “Illusions”—are here played out in their lowest common denominator. Indeed, one might almost see her work as  satirizing  Emerson’s 19th century values, which in the context of the political tumults of the 20th century (whether we are speaking of pre-Castro or post-Castro Cuba or of any of the numerous other South American totalitarian governments) have become so demeaned as to seem absurd and even comic.

     Too bad the director of this production, Frédérique Michel, had apparently not read of Emerson, for, in the context of those concerns of the 19th century didact, Fornes’ dialogue is far more comic, at times, than it is simply a representation of shockingly savage behavior. If her characters are truly savages, in their delusions, nonetheless, they are often ridiculously foolish. Unfortunately, the actors of this production appeared to have no idea that their emotional outpourings appear as almost pallid quirks in a century of such absolutely appalling behavior that we cannot even put much of it into words.

     Perhaps it is simply a problem of the play; a reviewer of another production of The Conduct of Life, a 2003 Cambridge staging, pretty much sums up the City Garage acting techniques: [the characters], “in the lead roles, both spend most of their time on stage in fits of hysteria or rage. …Their drama becomes overwrought and tiring at times. Most of [Orlando’s] lines are delivered with shouting, banging and throwing, which gets to be a little too much in the small space.” (Stephanie E. Butler, The Harvard Crimson).

     Even if this is a truly harrowing portrait of human behavior, I wish that, beyond the comic-laced scenes between Leiticia and Olimpia, and Olimpia and Orlando, the characters had found room in Fornes’ often pregnant text to vent their range a little more in the manner of the cyanide-laced wit of George and Martha of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as opposed to the declamations of Williams’ Stanley and Blanche—although one wonders whether Fornes’ play might not be helped with the introduction of some elements of “camp.” It’s hard to take a character who describes his wife at the top his lungs as “foolish” five or six times as much of a serious threat.

      But Orlando is a threat, not only to the household which he haunts, but to the entire society in which he lives. And when he turns his military occupation into a fireside activity, attempting to torture his wife into a full confession of her marital dalliances, she suddenly realizes what the desperate always ultimately come to perceive: change is necessary for survival, that despite one’s values against violence, sometimes it is necessary to revolt. But even in shooting the monster dead, she appears to pass her own guilt on to Nena in handing her the gun—unless perhaps we read that act as a sisterly gesture of new empowerment, which is how I’d like to see it. But in the end, we can only ask, what is the cost of that suddenly discovered power? If Leiticia begins the play unable to imagine herself killing a deer, she ends the drama by killing the man she defined in terms of endearment. Violence always demands an unfathomable price.


Los Angeles, August 11, 2014

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