10pm Saturday night and I’m watching a woman being raped only five feet in front of me. Her body is smooth, child-like and toned. His body is smooth, manly and toned. Not so different from Game Of Thrones… only this rape is being staged to expose, not to titillate. And this is the Hollywood Fringe Festival, known for micro-budgets and 15-minute load-ins, not for expensive sets and fantastic costumes. But there were other reasons to stay in my seat despite my fear that a depiction of violence against women was about to be misrepresented for about the billionth time. And those reasons were the play and the players.
The LA based theatre company, The Vagrancy, known for its socially relevant work, is the daring force behind this powerful rendering of The Conduct Of Life, one of the lesser-known Obie-winning plays by the celebrated Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes whose work often focuses on poverty and feminism.
The Conduct Of Life explores the dark side of human interaction in an unspecified Latin American police state where sexuality meets violence, the personal meets the political and the wife meets the mistress. Actually, the long-suffering tortured wife meets her husband’s raped and beaten prisoner. But who’s counting? Certainly not the servant who changes sides as easily as the husband changes into his robe. And this servant’s torturer is the other mistress – the “mistress of the house” who denies her even a much-needed new pot. But everybody serves somebody in this chilling world, which bears too striking a resemblance to what lurks beneath our own, thanks to director Sabina Ptasznik’s laser-focused rendering of it. Her evocative direction magnifies what’s already on the page with masterful understatement.
Orlando (Robert Homer Mollohan) is terrifying and then terrifyingly tender. His performance reveals that archetypal gaping wound at the center of every monster. Leticia (Karina Wolfe) is pitch-perfect as the tight-lipped wife whose world is unraveling around her, who’s denied even the simple luxury of her own emotional integrity. Olimpia (Belinda Gosbee) plays all the nuances of how servants slip into mastery if you give them an inch, or deny them a new pot. Alejo (Jeremy Mascia) is obedient and quiet but anguished. And Nena (Emily Yetter) is magnificent as the woman/child whose mute obedience is louder than the brutal shouts of her captor.
The Conduct Of Life is one of the more elaborate productions in the fourth annual Hollywood Fringe Festival. But in keeping with the Fringe “less is more” franchise, this bare-bones production soars on little more than a couple of chairs and a box. And what a dangerous box it is…
The Conduct of Life – By Maria Irene Fornes; directed by Sabina Ptasznik
WITH: Belinda Gosbee (Olimpia), Jeremy Mascia (Alejo), Robert Homer Mollohan (Orlando), Karina Wolfe (Leticia), and Emily Yetter (Nena).
Designed by Nick Santiago ; lighting by Ric Zimmerman ; sound by Martin Carrillo ; costumes by John Houston ; producer, Caitlin Hart ; Associate Producer, George Pond ; stage manager, TaShaunna Peterman; Assistant Stage Manager/Props, Danielle Gonzales; Technical Director, Steve Madar. Presented by The Vagrancy. At Theatre Asylum Lab, 1078 Lillian Way (@ Santa Monica Blvd. ), Hollywood, CA 90038. BUY TICKETS at http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/1593?tab=dates Friday, June 6th @ 8:30PM Saturday, June 14th @ 10:00PM, Wednesday, June 18th @ 10:00PM Wednesday, June 25th @ 7:00PM Saturday, June 28th @ 9:00PM. Running time: 60 minutes.
Full disclosure: Three talented members of The Vagrancy performed in a reading of my one-act play Awesome Big Somebody at the SWAN Day Action Fest presented by Little Black Dress INK with Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative at Samuel French Theater & Film Bookshop this past spring. It was a blast.