Almost thirty years ago, Maria Irene Fornes had a new play. For its title, she took the name of a book published 125 years earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay collection The Conduct of Life.
In the play, a character says, “I want to conduct each day of my life in the best possible way.” Her words, like the title, echo Emerson. But don’t judge a book by its cover — either Emerson’s or Fornes’.
The playwright’s work, now staged by the Vagrancy at Theatre Asylum, is a raw, abrasive indictment of power, the drug of choice and lifeblood of patriarchy. And in his essays, the gentle “sage of Concord” wrote some of the most shocking apologetics for patriarchal power and violence that have ever been penned .
With Confederate guns firing on Fort Sumter, Emerson mused: “Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution [are] more rich … than languid years of prosperity.” What? Because, he calmly explained, “wars, fires, plagues … clear the ground of rotten races … and open a fair field to new men.” So much for his conduct of life.
Fornes’ play puts us in an unnamed totalitarian country, at war — as all police states are –against itself. (The unseen leaders both have Hispanic names, and Fornes was born in Batista’s Cuba; but it might be anywhere). We’re in the home of Orlando (Robert Homer Mollohan), an ambitious officer in the paramilitary police who has married a genteel older woman, Leticia (Karina Wolfe). Moments into the story, he kidnaps Nena (Emily Yetter), a young woman made homeless by the war, and imprisons her in the cellar as a sex slave.
In a rapid series of jarring scenes and vignettes, we are shown how everyone in this violently sick world is infected, implicated. There are no bystanders — though the kind officer Alejo (Jeremy Mascia) and the feisty servant Olimpia (Belinda Gosbee) try to be — and even the victims learn to lie and betray. At the end, a killing we feel is justified resolves nothing. The structured savagery of patriarchal society does not end so easily.
The performances in this production are intense, believable and courageous. The directing (by Vagrancy co-founder Sabina Ptasznik) is breathlessly fast-paced and precise. It’s a stunning, heart-rending achievement.
The chaotic-feeling but deftly functional set (by Nick Santiago), the spot-on costumes (John C. Houston IV), the morally murky lighting (Ric Zimmerman) and often ironic sound (Martin Carillo) — all conspire to create a painfully convincing world where our need to know keeps us imprisoned, though we are dying to escape.
This is not a pretty show. The rape and fight scenes (sickeningly real, thanks to choreographer Jen Albert) make it the wrong place for children. The way the characters treat each other — and cruelly betray themselves — makes it hard for adults. If this “conduct of life” clears the field for a new race of humans, I don’t want to meet them.
The Conduct of Life, by Maria Irene Fornes, directed by Sabina Ptasznik.
Presented by the Vagrancy at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd.
Wednesday June 25 at 7:00, Saturday June 28 at 9:00.