Los Angeles Theater Review: THE CONDUCT OF LIFE (The Vagrancy at Asylum / Hollywood Fringe Festival)

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by Tony Frankel on June 25, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


p_1593_i_3884483Inspired by Theater of the Absurd, Cuban expatriate María Irene Fornés (b. 1930) cut her teeth during the Off-Off-Broadway avant-garde movement. She may have nine Obie Awards to her credit, but this feminist playwright’s deliberately dark and opaque style willfully obfuscates her narrative, which keeps the meaning in her scripts, often rife with unpleasant, complex characters and murderous violence, ambiguous at best. Since many of her one-acts are short—and perhaps due to the in-your-face off-putting situations—you are more likely to see her work at Fringe Festivals than in regional theaters.

p_1593_i_6107891A textbook example of Fornés’ fascinating but ultimately alienating work resides in her 1985 The Conduct of Life, produced by The Vagrancy Theatre Company at the Hollywood Fringe. Addiction to violence consumes a sadistic young military intelligence officer and interrogator, Orlando (the intense and distractingly handsome Robert Homer Mollohan), whose day job is torture. He enjoys his work so much that he brings it home at night, abusing his denial-ridden wife Leticia (a beautifully steely but cowed Karina Wolfe) and beating and raping Nena (Emily Yetter), a nubile woman he keeps locked up in the basement. Observing all this is the knowing maid, Olimpia (Belinda Gosbee), who may be outwardly disgusted but acquiesces in her powerlessness. Visiting this house of tension is Alejo (Jeremy Mascia), a fellow officer who is more concerned with his own impotence than in keeping Orlando from moving ever farther to the dark side.

p_1593_i_2767271Since the characters barely attempt to contain Orlando’s brutality, the play has modern relevance given the complicity that led to “enhanced interrogation” at Gitmo and elsewhere. Yet the message—that violence begets violence, which females are obliged to suffer—is both shallow and vague (if indeed that is Fornés’ message).

Director Sabina Ptasznik eschews subtlety from the start as Mollohan paces shirtless like a tiger in a cage, grunting and exercising prior to curtain. Yetter, a game actress who was one of the only things to like about Geffen Playhouse’s The Exorcist, gives it her all, whether manacled to the wall, being penetrated from behind, or getting stuffed in a trunk for an entire scene. Unfortunately, her guttural moaning suddenly and inexplicably turns to speech, and becomes yet another of Fornés interminable and seemingly irrelevant monologues, which after the visceral goings on, deflate the tension.

p_1593_i_6627221Ptasznik, aided by Ric Zimmerman’s creative floor lights, excels when keeping the action sexy, scary, and edgy, but fails to bring life to these exhausting monologues. The actors outshine their mostly ineffective characters, aided by some truly gorgeous language. It’s up to individual audience members to put the puzzle pieces together at play’s end, but as gritty and professional as the production is, I found myself losing interest in Fornés’ world of gory allegory.

TCOLPOSTERphotos by Kate Hagerty

The Conduct of Life
The Vagrancy
part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival
Theatre Asylum Lab
1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood
for tickets, visit Hollywood Fringe
scheduled to end on June 28, 2014
for more info, visit www.thevagrancy.com

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