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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
The popularly famous line from Sartre's No Exit is "L'Enfer, C'est Les Autres (Hell is other people)". And the hell depicted in No Exit is often compared to being stuck in a crowded subway car. Yet the truth is, that's a bum steer. The existential hell Sartre depicts is a world in which the inner self cannot gain external expression; other people are just the co-conspirators.
The Jean Cocteau Repertory has something of an infatuation with this play. In twenty years, it has managed to produce it four times. This time, David Travis, a director who last year found the soul in a well-received production of O'Neill's Beyond the Horizon (linked below) for Chain Lightning Theatre, has succeeded in finding the soul-less core of the three characters Sartre has damned to hell for eternity. That core is a sexual one, driven not so much by lust as by vacuous ego vainly searching for identity.
No Exit is set in Hotel Hell, complete with a bellboy (Tim Deak). A small stark room is inhabited by the trio of principal characters. There are no implements of torture; none are needed. Sartre's devil is savvy and economical: he lets the damned do all of the heavy lifting. The circumstances and surroundings (no windows, no mirrors, no beds, no darkness, no privacy, a door locked from without) are all these three need to torture each other and themselves. Torture is their ineffective medicine, inflicted, thanks to Sartre, with biting humor.
The actors here succeed in making the prospect of shared eternity utterly uninviting. Garcin (Charles Parnell) is a coward masquerading as a pacifist writer, summoned to hell for the indignities he visited on his wife. Now the sole man in a world of women, he craves validation: the respect of a stronger woman, Inez (Elise Stone), as he seeks the submission of a weaker one, Estelle (Tracey Atkins). He can get neither. Parnell's somewhat heavy-handed presence suits Garcin's posturing well even if he never quite finds the character's paler underbelly.
Stone excels as Inez, the lesbian, revealing a powerfully sadistic force blended with a sense of conscious desperation. Least able to imagine any path to satisfaction, she becomes the harsh enforcer of Sartre's reality and the unsettler of any notion of balance between the three roommates. Stone maintains a rage of burning intensity, the closest thing this Hell has to an inferno.
Estelle, by contrast, is a study in the superficial. Atkins plays this poor girl turned socialite snob fairly gently, even as she fruitlessly exploits Garcin's attention to her own wishful thinking. She is the repository of the play's notion of unsustainable fantasy.
The set was designed by Giles Hogya, who directed one of the company's earlier stagings of No Exit. Perhaps this explains how it can be barebones and still so effective notwithstanding. It convincingly captures the dimensionlessness of Hell: matte surfaces and a perspective leading to a vacant infinity. Susan Soetaert's costumes, on the other hand, are confusing. Surprisingly unrelated and inconsistent with the characters, they also seem untethered in time.
This is a road to Hell paved with good intentions. It is built on a solid foundation, and leaves us plenty to contemplate.
August 15, 1998
LINK MENTIONED IN THIS REVIEW
CurtainUp's review of Beyond the Horizon