Maria Irene Fornes' The Conduct of Life, a politically themed drama presented by Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, has a lot in common with the recently staged Death and the Maiden. In both, the victims and the oppressors live in a generic Latin American country. Both plays avoid the traditional two-act format and present their material without intermissions. In both, men are the oppressors and women the victims.
But unlike Death and the Maiden, which ended up being talky, argumentative and ultimately vague, The Conduct of Life makes sure that we know who the villain is.
The play charts the comeuppance of brutal Lieutenant Commander Orlando. His wife, Leticia, puts up with him as the wives of powerful men sometimes do, in the hope that her privileged life will make it worthwhile. Orlando's friend and fellow military officer Alejo gives a sympathetic ear to Orlando's ranting and raving until he learns of a particularly senseless act of torture. Neither wife nor friend knows about the homeless girl tied up in the basement.
Peter James Cirino, the artistic director of Planet Earth, plays Orlando as an out-of-control maniac. By the end of the play, props lie in littered heaps, Orlando has verbally and physically abused everyone, and the character has been revealed as a psychopath. As they said about Adolf Hitler, why didn't somebody get rid of this guy a long time ago?
The Conduct of Life doesn't let us make up our own minds about anyone--it's obvious who wears the white and black hats here. And in preaching to the converted, the plot urges the audience to hope the villain gets what he deserves.
In the midst of all this predictability, the only character of any interest turned out to be the maid, Olympia, played by Karen Hestenes. The character's portrayal was so mannered and bizarre that I hadn't any idea what it all meant, until I learned from the program that she's supposed to be mentally retarded. Still, I felt sure she had to have some greater significance, such as: The simple but wise lower classes are superior to their corrupt rulers, or, perhaps, the absurd represents normality when society crumbles. Poor Olympia would do much better in another play.
The violence of The Conduct of Life ultimately turns gratuitous--we know Orlando is an abusive man, and with such a one-dimensional portrayal, the only character development that takes place in the piece is the wife's deciding to defend herself. No doubt the playwright's intention is to mirror the violence of the society in which she's set her tale, but the frequency of the violence turns the audience into voyeurs. Like the stacks of horrific photographs that Amnesty International provided Planet Earth, the violence onstage instinctively makes us want to avert our eyes. But by forcing our gaze at such repugnant acts, the play invites a perverse interest in the violence it seems to be condemning. The Conduct of Life takes the easy road in trying to keep our sympathy and interest.