Conduct of Life
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 19, 2008
One of the challenges of producing theatre in a college or university setting is the difficulty in locating age-appropriate actors, since the pool of available talent is almost entirely in the 18-22 range. While learning how to create a character who is very different from yourself is one of the hallmarks of acting training, for an audience it is often difficult to comprehend the subtleties and nuances of a play when everyone in it appears to be the same age.
This is, alas, the case with the DFX Entertainment revival of Maria Irene Fornes's Conduct of Life at MITF. The characters in the story are: Orlando, a career military man badly stifled by his years without promotion; Leticia, his older wife, a woman of significantly higher economic status than Orlando; Nena, a girl of perhaps 14 or 15 who has essentially been kidnapped by Orlando, who uses her as a sex slave; Alejo, another soldier who is Orlando's friend; and Olimpia, Leticia and Orlando's servant, a woman of indeterminate age who is completely unafraid of either of her employers, notwithstanding their cruelties.
I figured out the relationships among the characters much more slowly than I would have liked to, however, because director Joshua Lee Ramos has cast most of them with the same actors he worked on the play with a few years ago at the University of Hartford. With Orlando, Leticia, and Olimpia all about the same age (and all too young for their roles), the shifting power and status of each becomes difficult to discern. This is particularly problematic since Fornes's play is almost entirely concerned with power and status—how differences in class and education and attainment push individuals into certain kinds of behaviors. (There's a gender issue in the play, too, which is more clearly communicated by Ramos and his actors.)
That said, it must be noted that Najaterry Gonzalez, though far too young to be convincing as Olimpia, nevertheless has a real handle on the role and a potent stage presence that makes hers the most interesting character in the piece. Jade Anderson doesn't seem nearly young enough as Nena, but her work is similarly commendable.
Ramos's moves the play briskly and uses blackouts effectively to manage shifting locales and times. (Lighting is by Ramos and Julie Whitehouse.) His emphasis is on Orlando's role as a torturer for the military, but this seems secondary in Fornes's script to the gender/class politics of the situation; as a result, the production is perhaps less persuasive and compelling than it could be.