By Bradley Rohlf
“Welcome to Hell,” a cast member greets the audience as they enter the theater. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) has taken on Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” as part of its “Season of Entrapment,” presenting an engaging production with a new translation by Alyssa Ward..
“No Exit” is a standard-bearer for modern existentialist thought. Sartre was a philosopher and had a variety of literary output beyond writing plays. Dramaturg Andrea Robb notes in the program that “Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.” It is a broad philosophy as thinkers from diverse backgrounds have taken on the mantle. These factoids are not necessary to understand the play, but the background knowledge enhances the experience.
Due to its mainstay in literary academia, the play holds a certain familiarity in the general consciousness. Like Shakespeare, its story and themes are ripe for re-interpretation and re-contextualization. But SATE is faithful to the original text. The company and director Bess Moynihan leave it a fully French and fully post-war story, allowing Sartre’s work to stand in its own strength.
One by one, Garcin, Inès, and Estelle are each led into the room by the valet (who also welcomed us to Hell prior to curtain). The room is small, windowless, and as a couple of the characters remark, poorly decorated.
The new tenants of the room are surprised to find no implements of torture. In fact, very little seems to be what any of them imagined Hell to be. The valet, played by Katy Keating, of course remarks that, how could anyone on Earth have any idea of what it is really like here? Keating is a cold and direct demon, and charmingly glib.
All three residents of the room have some secret shame that has qualified them for their position here. Shane Signorino plays Garcin, the former publisher of a pacifist newspaper in South America. He is a serious man, and concerned with figuring everything out.
He is somewhat vexed, however, by his initial Hellmate, Inès, a postal worker in life, played by Sarah Morris. Morris is powerful, commanding the room with a brute force of personality. She is accepting of her lot, not seeking atonement like Garcin.
The final entrant is Estelle, played by Rachel Tibbets, a socialite who may as well be on a layover en route to her vacation in the Alps. Tibbets displays the hallmarks of aloof propriety. Even in death, she searches for a suitable euphemism to describe their newfound state of existence.
Their differing experiences and perspectives prime the room for conflict. And adding to the tension is a bit of an unrequited lust triangle among the trio. While the relationships between characters are not primarily sexual, it is a factor.
Not only do they cause each other strife in their confinement, but occasionally each character is able to see a glimpse of the life they left behind. An inability to control how or even if they are remembered adds to their pain.
The play can seem simple on the surface, summed up by its most famous line, “Hell is other people.” But it is thematically dense, as exemplified by Robb’s notes in the program. And even that is a mere primer on what this story explores.
Like any good piece of literature, it brings something new with each encounter. I was most struck by the theme of control. How much of our existence do we really control? When we look at our own lives, it seems easy to identify what we do and do not have power over, but looking in at the life of a damned fictional character, everything is revealed as perfectly fatalistic.
Three people locked in a room with no means of escape, and nowhere to go even if they could, yet still they try the door and the bell, and they talk about getting out. On top of that, the characters ought to see in their visions of Earth that they have no control over what people up there do or think. They are separated, gone — but still they remark, “if only…”
While there are no mirrors on stage, there is one mirror present, and it is the show itself. It may be an overused metaphor, but it will never get old – that theatre is a mirror to ourselves, showing us the best and worst in us, that we could not see on our own.
“No Exit” is presented by SATE from Wednesday through Saturday, Aug. 15 – Sept. 1, at 8 p.m., at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive. For more information or tickets, visit www.slightlyoff.org.
Photos by Joey Rumpell