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The Conduct of Life

Celebrated playwright María Irene Fornés’ 1985 raucous yet thoughtful fantasia about military oppression in Latin America is given a revelatory revival.

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Dakota Granados and Déa Julien in a scene from María Irene Fornés’ “The Conduct of Life” (Photo credit: Al Foote III)

[avatar user=”Darryl Reilly” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Darryl Reilly, Critic[/avatar]Farce meets tragedy in a fictional unnamed Latin American country in The Conduct of Life. It’s a raucous yet insightful fantasia about military oppression taking its toll on the populace by the celebrated playwright María Irene Fornés. First performed in 1985 it is being given an inspired revival by the Boundless Theatre Company that is “spearheaded by women and theatre-makers of color.” The play is structured as 19 short, often absurdly funny and sometimes unsettling scenes, some lasting just a few seconds, that total 75 fascinating minutes.

Orlando is a 33-year-old army lieutenant who is disgruntled by his lack of career advancement. He is married to the fiery 10 years older Leticia. He becomes more focused on his duties and rises to a commander due to his new-found ruthlessness. There are allusions to torture, assassinations and totalitarianism. Nena is a young woman who was a prisoner that Orlando raped, and then becomes his mistress. When he moves her into his house, there are disastrous consequences. Also on the scene is the comical maid Olimpia and Orlando’s affable colleague Alejo.

The theater’s contained three-sided playing area is framed by scenic designer Regina Garcia’s sterile gray-paneled walls and modern dining room set with a cabinet from which a pink telephone is occasionally produced. This stark environment includes a wall unit that represents a small rectangular prison cell. Grimness is ever-present.

Maria Cristina Fusté’s hypnotic lighting design is heavy on eerie dimness blended with jolting brightness. Hints of Bernard Herrmann’s staccato Hitchcockian melodies combined with Astor Piazzolla’s tango tunes are echoed in composer Nathan Leigh’s ominous original score. Mr. Leigh’s sound design further adds a creepy dimension with its bold tones.

Monica Steuer, Déa Julien, Dakota Granados and Ana Grosse in a scene from María Irene Fornés’ “The Conduct of Life” (Photo credit: Al Foote III)

Leticia’s eye-catching floral and crimson dresses, olive military garb laden with medals, tattered inmate wear and a stiff black servant uniform are the choice pieces of Harry Nadal’s gorgeous Evita-style costume design.

Director Elena Araoz’s  vibrant staging perfectly realizes Fornés’ vision by harnessing these high-caliber technical elements in unison with “violence and intimacy” directors David Anzuelo and Gerardo Rodriguez of Unkle Dave’s Fight House’s physical combat flourishes. Ms. Araoz also crucially guides the vivid performances that are on display.

Vigorously doing pushups on various areas of the stage is how we first meet the lean, intense and magnetic Dakota Granados who plays Orlando. With his flowing dark hair, goatee, piercing eyes, dancer-like moves and trilling tenor voice, Mr. Granados achieves a grand portrayal of a Brechtian everyman.

The angular and willowy Ana Grosse has such a dynamic stage presence that at times she seems to be on the verge of bursting out in “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Ms. Grosse’s charismatic performance swiftly ranges from comedic to dramatic.

Ana Grosse and Monica Steuer in a scene from María Irene Fornés’ “The Conduct of Life” (Photo credit: Al Foote III)

Lisping, mugging and gliding about are the chief features of Monica Steuer’s hysterical characterization of Olimpia.  It’s like watching Edna May Oliver appearing in a Pedro Almodóvar film. Ms. Steuer’s hilarious speech detailing the repetitive routine of her servitude, throwing silverware around and exhibiting despair during the bleak finale are standout moments of her terrific work.

Much of Déa Julien’s powerful performance as Nena is in silence as she conveys her anguish through her painful facial expressions. When Ms. Julien speaks, it is in charming girlish tones that are equally as effective. Terrell Wheeler’s winning drollery and easy manner enriches his appearances as Alejo.

The winner of nine Obie Awards, Ms. Fornés was born in 1930 in Cuba and came to the United States at the age of 15. Her career began in New York City’s emerging Off-Off Broadway theater scene in the early 1960’s and includes over 40 plays. Acclaimed as a true original, her idiosyncratic works are characterized by a concern for individuals and their relationship to society.

It is unfortunate that Fornés, now 88 years old and plagued by dementia, will most likely be unaware of this revelatory incarnation of The Conduct of Life.

The Conduct of Life (through September 30, 2018)

Boundless Theatre Company

Teatro Circulo, 64 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission

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