Whenever I meet someone in the armed services, I always thank them. I may disagree with how American soldiers are being deployed and used, but the men and women serving in this all-volunteer military do not write their own orders; the troops have my respect and gratitude.
The Conduct of Life — produced by Tooth and Nail Ensemble and Two Lights Theatre Company — opens with a young lieutenant, Orlando, taking a look forward at his prospects in the military, examining timelines, plotting the course for the life he and his wife will build together. Orlando, however, is no ordinary foot soldier. Orlando specializes in interrogation.
How difficult it is for soldiers to flip that switch in their brains to go from person to killing machine, then flip it back to person. Alarmingly high rates of PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide among our war veterans demonstrate that their sacrifices run much deeper than mere life and limb. Orlando is asked to be much more than just a killing machine. Orlando tortures people for information.
The question of whether the military made him a monster, or whether he was a monster who found a suitable outlet for his vileness in this particular military career, is largely beside the point. Orlando must be a monster to also be this professional torturer. He compromises his perfect home life by kidnapping a mentally ill homeless woman whom he repeatedly rapes and tortures throughout the play — gradually bringing her into the house and making his heinous activities no secret to his housekeeper and his wife.
Much of the violence, as well as characters’ reactions to the violence, is staged in the Japanese dance style Butoh, characterized here by exaggeration of movement and expression, slow motion, and tableau. Choreographer Jean Kerr does an exceptional job of translating unwatchable acts into grotesque art without losing the power or significance of those atrocities.
Much of the emotional tone of the production is fed by the haunted score provided by Sound Designer Rob Carroll, Music Director Steve Gonabe, and other band members Tom Duncan and Chris Olmstead. The cello-heavy dirgeful melodies cry on our behalf as we look on in disgust.
Director Marti Lyons demonstrates superlative control and restraint in how she has guided the ensemble away from melodrama and cliché. She deftly balances the real and the symbolic to tell a story that any decent person would feel compelled to walk out of otherwise.
The ensemble is terrific. Elizabeth Olson renders a subtle yet powerful performance as Orlando’s wife, Leticia. Leticia is a metaphor for a nation that does not want to know what its military must do, thinks it must do, and does. Leticia is a character in constant flux; Olson fluidly transitions from 1950s-style hausfrau, to schemer, to willfully ignorant wife, to horrified spectator, to victim, and beyond. At one point, her emotionally charged Butoh work pierces the audience with the full force of Orlando’s repulsive horror-show far more devastatingly than any explicit display could have.
Meghan Reardon imbues the terrorized Nena with a verve in her eyes that is unable to escape her mental illness, unable to escape her continual rape and torture and confinement. Nena is a metaphor for those who are brutalized by war, who are sometimes the very ones in whose name the battles are fought; she is occupied, she is devastated, she is desecrated. Reardon plays to Nena’s childlike qualities in such a way that Orlando becomes that much more sinister for choosing her specifically as his prey. Some of the simulated rape that she handles in Butoh seems even more brutal for it, if that is even possible.
Usually, in a story of an evildoing soldier, the soldier faces the same dilemma as the HAL-9000 from 2001: two sets of conflicting orders or protocols that get disturbingly mismatched and misinterpreted. Not so for Orlando. Orlando is a predator and a menace who objectifies people in some of the worst possible ways. Orlando is a synecdoche for a military that shrugs off opposition to torture, that can place the human toll of war as a single point labeled “Casualties” on a chart in an addendum to an addendum to a report. Kevin V. Smith embodies the military might a superpower can rain down upon a small frail nation that has something that the superpower desires. Smith squeezes every possible drop of sympathy out of the audience for this unrepentant, unsympathetic character. Orlando is vile beyond all limit, and somehow Smith gives us the man who is also that monster. Smith strongly plays to the immaturity required in someone who can treat a person like a thing to be used in accordance with the slightest whim — chilling, sickening, a performance you cannot turn away from nor shut your eyes to.
The Conduct of Life is a story of nauseatingly intense violence, only made tolerable to watch through the incredible realization of Director Marti Lyons’s vision of Maria Irene Fornes’s eviscerating script. A talented ensemble — led by Elizabeth Olson, Meghan Reardon, and Kevin V. Smith — carry the audience through some deeply scary territory, mediated and intensified by Jean Kerr’s Butoh choreography. This story of one fictional unrepentant sociopathic soldier illuminates all the human costs of military action — on the battlefield, in the interrogation room, at home. In this light, it is a wonder that so many of our men and women in uniform manage to keep their wits about them in the service of our country; they are brave beyond measure.
3 1/2 STARS
(“The Conduct of Life” runs through July 26 at The Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Avenue. 773-296-6024.)
The Conduct of Life production photos by John Taflan