Todd Union’s final production this semester, “The Conduct of Life” from Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornés, opened last Thursday to a rapt audience.
The play has been met with controversy and criticism since Fornés first published it in 1985, but was also wildly successful and won a prestigious Obie Award — given to productions premiering off Broadway — that same year. Set in a Latin American country in present day, the one-act drama depicts the story of Orlando, an abusive military officer who lashes out against the other four cast members with sexually and physically violent outbreaks. In the first fifteen minutes, Orlando, played by junior Martynas Snarskis, walked around stage dictating self-deprecating thoughts before masturbating with his back to the audience.
Artistic Director of the UR International Theater Program Nigel Maister touched on the difficulty of producing this show at a university level.
“The play is challenging material, not only because its content contains significant violence, but also because it is episodic and major events and context are not shown,” he said.
Much of the play’s events occur off stage. In an early scene, Orlando drags twelve-year-old Nena — played by junior Fan Xia — from the street into his living room before raping her. In another, Orlando and his friend Alejo — first-year Benjamin Weinberg — rush onstage in a heated argument about Orlando’s torturing of a dead civilian.
Such scenes are carried by the intensity of the characters’ desires and the portrayal of complex relationships. At the dinner table in one scene, Orlando and his wife Leticia — senior Samantha Richardson — are arguing over the value of education. Leticia is ten years older than Orlando but initially comes across as sweetly ignorant. Lines like, “I want to conduct each day of my life in the best possible way” pair her idealism against Orlando’s despondency. As the show goes on, however, Leticia’s trust for Orlando and their war-torn world gets whittled down. By the final few scenes, Richardson screams her lines in frustration.
Even their housekeeper Olimpia (first-year Daimarelys Lara) undergoes a subtle transformation. She is comic relief for much of the play with hilarious banter about her household routine, until the action heats up and she stands dumbfounded in the dining room as Orlando paces around Leticia and beats her.
“Finding the rhythm of the piece was difficult and, for the actors, understanding the arc of characters and their motivations was sometimes a challenge,” Maister said of the characters’ sensitive duality. “I was initially concerned that it would be very difficult to work with young actors on this material, but they were so committed and so mature in their approach […] They understood how and why the violence occurred and how the sexual violence and intimacy was integral to the storytelling.”
The content warning in the program cued audience members to the nonstop brutality of the show. Repeated rape scenes between Orlando and Nena were shown until Leticia found out from hearing Nena’s screams across the stage. Maister was concerned about the play’s “sensationalistic rumor” and its effect on the student body.
“Although we were creating something realistic, intense, and violent-looking, we tried to be respectful and safe (physically and emotionally) in everything we did which made it all proceed very smoothly,” he said.
The five actors were met with a standing ovation.
“I was astounded by the depth of understanding that the audience displayed and the maturity and insight of their questioning,” Maister said adding that an audience member had found the honest depictions of violence “healing.” “The Conduct of Life” runs until May 4, and this coming Wednesday is free for students.