Anyone who has ever seen a staging of Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit knows that no matter how good the play is, it always leaves the audience feeling anxious. At bottom we have all chosen to watch three people, stuck in a room for eternity, come to terms with their respective versions of hell. Although No Exit has been staged ad nauseam, the current rendition at the American Conservatory Theater brings new life and a greater clarity to the play.
Conceived and directed by Kim Collier and performed in concert with The Valet by Jonathon Young (Collier and Young are co-directors of Canada's innovative Electric Company Theatre), this version uses video cameras to project live feeds of the characters onto a large set of screens onstage. Rather than the traditional proscenium (or stadium-style) set with three walls facing the audience, this production actually isolates the actors within a closed room that we cannot otherwise see into, except via video feed.
The Valet (Jonathan Young, far right) looks into the hotel room, as Estelle (Lucia Frangione) gets introduced to Inez (Laara Sadiq) and Cradeau (Andy Thompson). Photo by Barbara Zimonick.
The characters can neither escape themselves nor one another, the effect of which is beautifully transmitted through the use of close-ups. Left to simply watch the suffering of these characters as it is projected onto the screen, we grasp how often we spend our own lives emotionally detached from the people around us.
The reason we go to the theater is to engage in a world that interacts with us -- rather than merely watching something recorded on TV or the internet. We subject ourselves to the theatrical tragedies of other people in order to experience them without putting ourselves in danger; we enter another world to access a portal into our own, utilizing our imagination to transcend our usual way of thinking. Thus it is fascinating that while these characters are staring straight at us, they cannot actually see us, and in this way their 'deaths' are more immediate and understandable than normal. We are not just watching them pretend to be in a closed-off room; they really are trapped.
Inez (Laara Sadiq, left), Estelle (Lucia Frangione, center), and Cradeau (Andy Thompson) find themselves locked in a hotel room in the afterlife.
Without mirrors, the characters are forced to fulfill this function for one another. Herein lies their hell. Cradeau, played by Andy Thompson, is a journalist who was executed, as he puts it, for sticking to his principles and telling the truth in his articles -- although as we get to know him we realize that this claim is suspect and that he depends on the opinions of others for his identity. Inez, played by Laara Sadiq, is a secretary who died at the hands of the lover she seduced away from her own cousin. Estelle, played by Lucia Frangione, comes from the upper class, but is guilty of murdering her unwanted infant. As these three struggle to fulfill their own needs for self-perception through one another, they exploit their conflicting agendas and reveal how thoroughly they each deceive themselves.
The Valet (Jonathon Young) keeps an eye on Cradeau (Andy Thompson). Photo by Michael Julian Berz.
But their projections, staring into the crowd, serve as our mirrors -- just one crucial way this production elucidates the concepts in No Exit. Another way is through the valet, who in Sartre's text merely shows the three main players to their room, but here inhabits a special role as intermediary between the audience and those in the room. Condemned to watch the replaying of this same scene over and over, by people who believe themselves to be experiencing it for the first time, the valet addresses the audience directly: holding up cards that read: "If You See Yourself In Them My Hell Never Ends." "You're My Way Out." In other words: why did we put ourselves in the room, if only to be able to leave it?
But it's not all cerebral. The performances are dynamic and accessible, and although there were a few times I thought 'this is almost like watching bad TV' -- when the live element was a little too removed -- I was forced to accept that I was the one, that we in the audience were the ones who were merely watching and could leave whenever we wanted. A point underscored by the question, "Are we still relevant," which the valet's uncle/boss asks at the beginning of the play. "Yes, there's still about the same amount of people here," he replies, flashing a light through the audience. No Exit seems to have become increasingly relevant.
Whether you're interested in the tenets inherent in the text itself, in the convergence of film and theater, or in the effects of media on the state of mankind, this play will give you plenty to think about. You may even want to see it again, and again ...
No Exit runs through May 1, 2011 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.