A compact but brutal tour de force about the human capacity for violence, Maria Irene Fornes’ 1985 Obie Award–winning play The Conduct of Life has a timeless relevance. The violence in question is perpetrated by Orlando (George Villas), an ambitious Latin American military officer, who “must eliminate all obstacles” to his destiny of achieving maximum power.
At the top of the new production at City Garage, director Frédérique Michel has Villas strength training in the nude to emphasize Orlando’s raw, animalistic tendencies. In stark contrast, his stylishly attired but frustrated wife, Leticia (Kristina Drager), feels trapped with a bull of a husband who never listens to her, a fact she reveals to Orlando’s milquetoast colleague Alejo (Johanny Paulino).
To salvage a scrap of dignity and agency, Leticia lords over their feisty maid Olimpia (Nicole Gerth), who gives as good as she gets. In fact, Olimpia is the only one who cares for Nena (Nili Rain Segal), a young street urchin whom Orlando has kidnapped and rapes repeatedly.
Michel’s casting of the short-statured Gerth in the role of servant creatively evokes the class disparity in the piece, not to mention Gerth’s juxtaposition with the well-built Villas adding to the lopsided power dynamic of their conflict. At the same time, Michel’s staging of Orlando’s violence against Nena feels one-dimensional, so the impact is not as viscerally horrifying as it could be. As a result, the heartbreak of Nena’s acceptance of her circumstances, and the emotional impact of the play as a whole, is diminished.
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City Garage, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bldg. T1, Santa Monica; through Aug. 17. (310) 453-9939. www.citygarage.org.
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