Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Conduct of Life by María Irene Fornés

Adriana Sevahn Nichols and Nick Caballero - Photos by Brandon Le

By Joe Straw

One needs only to glance at the photographs of María Irene Fornés to know she is Cuban and an artist. In her photograph she steadies her upper torso against the wall looking straight ahead, abundant curly hair and glorious high cheekbones.  She has the stare of an artist of someone who sees more than what is in front of her and eyes that projects a backstory that is her life.  It’s all there and she is beautiful. – Narrator

Hero Theatre presents The Conduct of Life by María Irene Fornés and directed by José Luis Valenzuela through June 25th, 2017.

The show runs about an hour in length and it is filled with so much life.

This was my first time at the beautiful Rosenthal Theater at the Inner City Arts building in Los Angeles. Everyone was courteous and welcoming.  

I arrived early, too early, parking was plentiful along the street and I thought there would be plenty of spaces when I came back. So, I quickly drove away expecting to find the nearest Starbucks to drink coffee and hang out.  But, when I got back, the street was filled with cars.  A man saw my predicament and tried to wave me into a lot.  I demurred, but finding nothing now on the street I drove back to him. From there he ushered me into the lot where parking was free!

The Conduct of Life is a visual feast!  One can expect this from José Luis Valenzuela, perfectly sui generis in his craft, and in the way he adds a pourboire by filling our needs for a complete theatrical gratification.  One can take a pick from all that is included.  The first is the hypnotic Lighting Design by Johnny Garofalo, which takes the audience from a sterile home into the deep dark blue and red recesses of a torture chamber.  Or it might be John Zalewski’s Sound Design that manages to fill the humiliated silences and other sounds that heightens the pain of troubled souls in manipulations and torture.

This first disturbing image is one of shadows of a young woman, back lit by blue lights.

Nick Caballero and Antonia Cruz-Kent

Nena (Antonia Cruz) is tied up in the basement.  She is hanging from a suitcase belt that is tethered from the ceiling.  She waits blindfolded for whatever comes hoping the outcome is to her benefit. Snatched from sleeping in the streets, she is now a prisoner of a man with a troubled soul. Torture is not new to him.

His name is Orlando (Nick Caballero) exercising in his living room.  Having the blood run through his system so other things can work. He thinks out loud about his job, being a second lieutenant at the age of thirty-three and trying harder in his job of getting ahead in the military.

But in Orlando’s mind, they are on to him.  They know and they wait for his next mistake, a big one that will cause his downfall. He thinks about that all the time.

Alejo (Jonathan Medina) watches, not saying a word, his every movement, as though he were incapable of speaking.  Something is going on with his friend, or military associate, a man he has known for many years.

And Leticia (Adriana Sevahn Nichols) just listens to her husband Orlando carrying on the way he does, he is abusive to her and her nature, they once loved, but he despises her now for reasons that she doesn’t understand and won’t divulge with Alejo standing there watching the both of them.

“He doesn’t love me.” - Leticia   

Leticia says this to Alejo after being humiliated by her husband.  She has a hard outer surface and pretends not to be hurt.  Still, she asks Alejo to help her, with her political science studies.

Adriana Sevahn Nichols and Elisa Bocanegra
Despite the things going on in the house, Leticia is managing the household chores with Olimpia (Elisa Bocanegra) an obstructionist maid.  Preparing the day for meals is never a mundane act especially when Olimpia describes the correct way in which things should be done. Leticia can only stare in disbelief listening to the structured stuttering ramblings of a meticulous maid.

And then there’s that other stuff going on in the basement, the ignored screams emanating from the cellar, conflicted with the silence cries of loneliness, variegated with pain, and finding no solutions to make right the present or the future, all in this the conduct of life.

One can’t give too much of this away for the sake of spoiling your viewing pleasure.  The show is only 60 minutes long.

With José Luis Valenzuela, the director, it’s about finding the connective tissue, the core of the relationship that moves a character. Each character embodies their own specific conduct of life and we watch passing judgment on how things should or should not be, god-like to our collective core.  Sometimes it is beautiful to watch and sometimes we want to turn our heads.  But whatever we feel it all makes for beautiful theatre.

Elisa Bocanegra is a fascinating actor.  Her voice as the stuttering Olimpia is unique, rich, and something you will never hear again from any actor. Bocanegra also gives Olimpia an attitude, a silent strength, a woman of compassion and secrets.  This is a performance not to miss.

One can’t see a lot of redeeming qualities in the character Orlando, played by Nick Caballero. Certainly, when an actor approaches a role he wants to find the positive virtues in a character, one that gives a creative choice and strong objective.  This is a character that wants a higher rank in the military but gets confused by mental obstacles and physical conflicts. His actions are unbecoming of an officer, and he is no gentleman. His actions must weigh heavily on his being, but I saw none of that.  He must know that if he is caught there may be strong repercussions, but he continues as though little of that matters. Caballero presents a strong figure and is strong in his craft.  But, there is doubt about this character, the end result, and the thing we are supposed to feel at the end.

Antonia Cruz-Kent plays Nena, the victim who stands with the aid of a strap hanging from the ceiling.  She has been taken off the streets and now is a captive. She cowers in a corner, scared out of her wits, and wonders when this will all stop. Cruz-Kent does an admiral job playing the victim.  There is more needed from this character after she is released with her mental and physical state of mind. The relationship with her captor must present many more layers after she has been released and into a maid’s costume. Nevertheless, it is very brave work.

Jonathan Medina plays the military friend Alejo. He is a very quiet man, watching things that go on about this household without saying a word.  He mostly keeps to himself and observes the machinations around the house. Alejo recognizes the tensions but can't put his finger on the solution.  He knows what his friend is about, the torture, and he must remind his friend the true nature of his calling, before he acts.  There is more to add with his relationship with Leticia.  Medina approaches the role very methodically, his voice is strong, and he has a grand presence on stage.

Adriana Sevahn Nichols has some dramatic challenges with the role of Leticia.  Leticia is a woman, the head of the household with no control over her domain.  Her husband is in the basement, the maid runs all over her, she does not recognize the man who wants to get nearer to her, and she can’t get the simplest of questions answered. She curious but she is not curious enough to find solutions.  She has no children and her husband does not see her in the same way he once did. Still she manages to hold on to whatever life she once had. Nichols does some very dramatic work in The Conduct of Life.

Polly Humphreys is the Olimpia swing but did not perform the night I was there.

Carlos Brown, Costume Design, gives the impression that we are in 1950’s Cuba and the craft was scrupulous.

François-Pierre Couture was responsible for the Set Design, marvelously planned and very workable for the actors to perform their magic.

Other members of the delightful crew are as follows:

Van White – Fight Choreography
Veronica Vasquez – Stage Manager
Gabe Figueroa – Assistant Director
Gabe Figueroa, Terrence Leung – Associate Producers
Miles Bryant, Ashley Busenlener, Joseph M. Henderson, Julia Stier and Analia Tamariz – Producing Fellows & Interns

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves to outline the psyche of human actions. 


  1. So honored! Thank you for coming out to see our young company's work! Thank you, thank you!

  2. You're welcome. I am now a big fan of your work and Hero Theatre!