“The Conduct of Life” Reviewed by Rose Desena

This Week in Theater

by Rose Desena

The City Garage is a lovely, intimate theater nestled at one end of Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. Artistic director Frédérique Michel and her husband Charles Duncombe are a successful two-person operation. They have survived and flourished since 1987 and have been the recipients of many awards. With help from their loyal acting group, they have continued to bring their patrons the best in avant -garde theater. Their newest production “The Conduct of Life” is no exception. It is a deep look at self-loathing hatred that sinks deep into the soul of a tormented Latin male in conflict, as well as a country in turmoil.


“The Conduct of Life” was written in 1985, as a truthful piece of political information educating people on the military and police violence in Argentina during what has become known as the “Dirty War”. From 1974 to 1984 in Argentina, the police ran rampant in an attempt to keep civil order against political dissidents and used kidnapping, torture and rape as their preferred methods. It was a time of terrorism and bombings like today, and also like today torture and loss of civil liberties were justified out of fear. The numbers of those who went missing or were captured and tortured vary but it is believed to be as many as 30,000.


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Even though it is about the past, it is described as “Today, in a Latin nation.” This is highlighted by the mass exodus of children from Guatemala and Honduras today and in some ways about the torture committed by the United States during the last decade. The play is about the relationship between the torturer and the person being tortured and how it does damage to both, though not equally. This is especially relevant considering that the 9/11 mastermind, Sheik Khalid was waterboarded, meaning drowned, over 200 times by unnamed Americans who may be living next door to us or be husbands, boyfriends or fathers. However justified by the events of the past, the damaged torturer remains with us in the present.


Writer Maria Irene Fornes, born in Cuba in the 30s, was no stranger to political suppression, upheaval and violence. She triumphed over the ‘50’s, an era of government blacklisting, and is considered a true feminist.


Orlando (George Villas) is a fierce and frustrated man, a soldier in the Buenos Aires police force with the responsibility of being a torturer. He is in a constant state of agitation, not only did he accept his job, it became who and what he was. Orlando wanted to move up in the ranks but he was never promoted, making his life and the lives of those around him intolerable. He blamed his wife (Kristina Drager) Leticia for his own failures. He constantly berates and intimates her as well as their friend Alejo (Johanny Poulino).


All of Fornes’ characters are slightly exaggerated and Michel found the perfect cast. Alejo is a gentle and upbeat guy even though he is a colleague of Orlando. He has a good head on his shoulders and has not been corrupted by  power. Confused by what is going on in the lives of his friends, he sticks by Leticia, and clearly sees that Orlando has gone over the edge. It seems he is just as frightened by this cruel bastard as Leticia and knows he is no match for him. The character who is the most striking is the maid, Nicole Gerth (Olimpia).


She is a petite person with a giant voice and acting skills to match. In one scene, she stands up to Orlando telling him she is not afraid of him. Seeing this small figure going up against this big, muscle bound bully was quite profound. Leticia considered herself to be someone for the people, a supporter of the lower classes but her behavior was nothing less than aristocratic with Olimpia. The relationship was clearly servant and madam and at times rude and dismissive, contradicting who she believed she is or maybe wants to be.

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As Orlando’s anger builds he is unstoppable. In a fit of power, he kidnaps a 12-year-old prisoner he was abusing on a regular basis. He brings her to his house and keeps her as his sex slave in the basement, making the family unwilling and helpless victims of his brutal viciousness. Leticia’s reaction at one point is quite shocking and is  an example of the apathy she now feels. Of course, there is an unexpected ending so you must see it to find out what happens.


The play is a stark look at corruption and power fueled by fear that takes over, when we don’t require our policing agencies to be accountable, when society itself loses its perspective and morals are lost. When the government completely breaks down and the term “civil“ is no longer important.


Although this sounds like a difficult play to watch, Frédérique Michel’s directing talent and creative eye made it mesmerizing and easy to watch. The acting is superb. Besides being well done and beautifully written, I think this is a socially valuable play to see. I truly appreciated it.


For more information on the Dirty War: http://digitalunion.osu.edu/r2/summer06/herbert/dirty_war/

The Conduct of Life

Written by Maria Irene Fornes

Directed by: Frédérique Michel

Runs until Aug 17th Fridays, Saturdays 8:00pm; Sundays 5:00pm


Bergamot Station Arts Center

2525 Michigan, Ave., Building T1 – Santa Monica, CA 90404

tel: 310-453-9939 citygarage@citygarage.org www.citygarage.org


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