Orlando (Salvador Chevez) continuously abuses Nena (Traci Thiebaud).
Orlando (Salvador Chevez) continuously abuses Nena (Traci Thiebaud).
Jose Hernandez

The Conduct of Life

The Conduct of Life isn't easy to like. More polemic than play, its brutal depiction of man's inhumanity shocks rather than illuminates. Playwright María Irene Fornés, a leading figure in American fringe theater since the '60s, eschews traditional dramatic form for a highly poetic avant-garde style. Symbolism runs amok, dramatic structure gets replaced by feelings and scenes are quick and sparse, with cohesion implied by theme rather than internal logic. There are jolting ellipses where previous action isn't followed through but dropped without comment. While honest and heartfelt, Fornés's impressionistic technique pushes us away.

Conduct, now being put on by Nova Arts Project, is gritty. There are no fewer than three sexual encounters, all ugly and demeaning, played smack in our lap; we're more aware of the simulation than the emotions the unwilling victims are going through. But when the action turns less crude, the play's sense of dread takes flight. A fist cocked to strike or a whispered threat murmured too close to a face, and we sit bolt upright, fearing the worst. The implied violence is potent, and very much Fornés's theme. But then, so is fate, overbearing paternal society and women's sad lot.

Orlando (Salvador Chevez) is a faceless military functionary in a repressive, unnamed South American banana dictatorship. Wanting promotion, he must focus, strip himself of all desires, especially the sexual ones, and "eliminate all obstacles." He's a professional torturer without feelings, just doing his job. His wife Leticia (Rivka Noskeau) seethes at her loveless marriage and lack of education. No longer a wife or sexual being, she's become his housekeeper. Orlando's best friend, fellow soldier Alejo (Will Morgan), listens to their constant bickering and incriminations without emotion. When Leticia implores Alejo to teach her things so she can attend university and change her drab life, he stoically replies, "Do you think anybody can change anything?" This banner-like pronouncement is another of Conduct's many themes, and we file this one alongside all the others.


The Conduct of Life

Barnevelder Arts/Movement Complex, 2201 Preston, 713-623-4033.

Through December 8. $15.

Then we meet the girl in the basement. Nena (Traci Thiebaud), a homeless waif Orlando has abducted, is cradled tenderly in his arms like a lover, on a ratty mattress. Without a word, Orlando viciously rapes her, inches from us. Obviously, he hasn't stripped himself of all desires. Upstairs in the kitchen, the mood shifts dramatically into the surreal and comic, as maid Olimpia (Portia Gant), berated by Leticia, lisps through a nonstop litany of her mundane duties. Social class is yet another theme. Olimpia is more of a mistress of the house than Leticia.

Abused continuously by Orlando, Nena cowers under her blanket while Leticia fumes and whines, constantly butting heads with feisty Olimpia and unsuccessfully fending off sexual advances from Alejo. The hot, roughhouse atmosphere culminates with Leticia screwing up the courage to explore the basement. Without explanation, Leticia takes Nena's place on the mattress, and Nena becomes another member of the household, trading intimacies with Olimpia as they shell beans in the kitchen. In the play's most concentrated scene, leading to the deadly climax, Orlando accuses Leticia of having a lover and interrogates her like one of his prisoners. We must take this on faith, since her infidelities are announced suddenly but never dramatized. Even out of context, it's a powerful scene, leaving us to wonder whether she's telling the truth or not.

Fornés is a gifted voice in the theater — and has a shelf full of off-off-Broadway Obies to show for it — but Conduct of Life (1985) is screed, not drama. Her characters are archetypes, not people, and because there's no ambiguity or complexity, she's preaching to the choir. She uses literary devices best left to the page instead of theater's own tricks, leaving us cold to her mouthpiece characters.

As Orlando, Chevez keeps us guessing throughout. We're never sure whether he'll lash out or kiss our palms. Noskeau, whose outrage must carry this didactic play, conveys Leticia's sympathy and overpowering frustration without turning into a shrew. Gant steals the show (and adds needed laughs) with Olimpia's breathless diatribe describing her daily household grind; while Morgan, with the least-­written role of the five, gives Alejo some semblance of depth. First as caged animal, then as naive captive, Thiebaud, though not as young as Fornés calls for, supplies Nena with appropriate dewy innocence and hope.

Director Sara Patterson and fight chore­og­rapher Kalob Martinez keep Conduct's unbecoming conduct square in our face, while Brian White's set and light design illuminate the harsh prison-like atmosphere of the house, where souls wither and harden into lumps of coal. If this theatrical downer is your idea of holiday fare, then Conduct of Life is the perfect gift.


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