‘Conduct of Life’ Examines Family Love, Torture

The characters in Marie Irene Fornes’ Conduct of Life bring to mind the Addams’ Family theme song. They’re creepy and they’re kooky, they’re mysterious and they’re ooky—they’re Orlando’s family, and they have arrived at the Loeb Experimental Theater in a chilling tale of torture and love.

Fornes’ Obie-prize-winning play doesn’t rely much on plot, but rather rests on thematic analogies exploring the relationships between husband and wife, master and servant, and torturer and victim. The play then asks if these relationships are fundamentally all the same. As the first scene opens, a single figure, a very angry Orlando (Jared M. Greene ’03), laments his low rank in the army of some unknown Latin American country. He blames his sex drive for most of his troubles and vows to change.

From there, the story unfolds piecemeal, with many details emerging in the blackouts between scenes. The characters are always privy to information that the audience does not know. Fornes occasionally fills in parts of the story, but spectators are more often left to extrapolate for themselves. Soon the audience meets his wife, Leticia, a hypersensitive hysterical woman who also drives for self-improvement. Her goal is to educate herself, seeing it as a way to either escape her loveless marriage or to make Orlando love her again.

As Orlando rises through the military ranks by joining the torture unit, he becomes increasingly cruel to both Leticia (Lisa Faiman ’03) and Alejo (Jeffrey A. Barnet ’06), his friend and coworker. While Leticia distracts herself with her education, Orlando kidnaps an orphaned girl, Nena, and keeps her in the basement where he repeatedly abuses her, eventually claiming that he does it out of love.

Violence characterizes every relationship in the play. Such violence works comically in the relationship between Leticia and her maid Olivia (Sarah E. Porter ’03), but cruelty inevitably pushes them to a terrifying end. Even the innocent and perpetually optimistic Nena accepts the unavoidable violence that plagues the world of Fornes’ characters.

Though audience members will be more spooked and confused than smiling at the end of this show, it is worthwhile for the superb acting, particularly in the supporting roles. Sarah Porter delivers as the tough, ornery maid Olivia, even if Olivia refuses to deliver for her employers. She is particularly brilliant in the early comic scenes with Faiman. The duo walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy, giving the audience both a laugh and a chill as they physically and verbally abuse one another. Though the comedy dissipates as the play charges forward, Porter handles her role as the awkward caretaker of Nena perfectly.

Jordan R. Berkow ’03 convincingly portrays the young orphan, Nena. Her slim frame and knock-kneed walk portray the tortured innocent of the kidnapped child whom Orlando houses in his basement where he repeatedly abuses her. Amazingly, Berkow is able to portray the child, first wide-eyed and slightly frightened, later battered and animalistic, and finally returning to the childlike innocence of her first appearance before becoming a participant in the daily humiliations surrounding her. And she does most of this without uttering much more than a few words.

Greene and Faiman, in the lead roles, both spend most of their time on stage in fits of hysteria or rage. While both do well in their comic moments—Faiman, in particular, plays well against Porter’s lisping Olivia—their drama becomes overwrought and tiring at times. Most of Greene’s lines are delivered with shouting, banging and throwing, which gets to be a little too much in the small space. He seems lost whenever he delivers a low decibel line, often raising his voice towards the ends of lines, so that statements start to sound like questions. Indeed, Greene is best when he’s silent, wordlessly demeaning his wife by waving a gun around at her. Believe it or not, that’s one of the funny parts of the play.

Barnet, in the role of Alejo, a friend of the couple, spends most of his time on stage silently bewildered by the events surrounding him. Audiences should be able to feel his pain since they, too, grapple with the vague plotline unfolding in front of them.

The production makes good use of the Loeb space with a split stage showing both the dining room and the basement of Orlando’s house simultaneously. For most of the play, it is unclear whether or not the two rooms are connected in any way. And just as Fornes leaves out much of the information surrounding the events of the play, the set, too, floats in the black box theater, giving the audience only bits and pieces of the characters environments.

Conduct of Life delivers a disjoint patchwork of emotions that melds torture and love together in a powerful performance.

—Conduct of Life plays tonight and Saturday in the Loeb Ex.

—Crimson Arts theater critic Stephanie E. Butler can be reached at sbutler@fas.harvard.edu.