Jean-Paul Sartre's 'No Exit' traps audiences in interactive hell

Photo: A.C.T's latest production,
Michael Julian Berz/Courtesy
A.C.T's latest production, "No Exit," is an exercise in cross-media. The play utilizes both the stage and live video feeds, also soliciting the audience's participation.

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Sitting through American Conservatory Theater's latest offering is like sitting through hell. Fortunately, this is "No Exit," and that's the whole point. This classic existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sartre depicts the author's dark vision of the underworld. And this production, created by the Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theatre, is a little more hellish than most (in a very good way).

"No Exit" (entitled "Huis Clos" in the original French) is the story of three deceased characters who end up together in the underworld, which, according to Sartre, is a little hotel room with no windows, no mirrors, a locked door and some bad company. First we have Cradeau (Andy Thompson), a journalist shot dead by a firing squad for fleeing service in World War II; then Inez (Laara Sadiq), a cruel and manipulative lesbian; and finally, Estelle (Lucia Frangione), a vain, gold-digging woman.

This play's most famous line may ring a bell: "Hell is other people." Perhaps it has drifted into your mind during a tedious discussion section or at a particularly awkward party. In "No Exit," each character is the others' torturer - together, they both suffer through and perpetuate their own hell.

To create the full effect of these characters' entrapment, director Kim Collier has shut up her players quite literally in the closed box of a hotel room just offstage. Though every now and then we catch a moving shadow under the door - or watch it shake as those within try desperately to get out - the characters are essentially cut off from the audience. Instead, three projections fill the stage with a live video feed from within.

In the script, each person has his or her own chair, but in this version they also have their own cameras - along with a few other hidden cameras that the editors will cut to at key points in the action.

So if the actors are locked away behind the scenes, what remains onstage? For one thing, a generous amount of (harmless) smoke, which seeps into every corner of the theater like an ominous fog, enveloping the audience. This smoke creates a veil over which the Valet (Jonathon Young), who remains onstage and in plain view, will shine his flashlight.

In the original play, the Valet character appears only briefly onstage, to lead the victims to their fate. In this version, he has the stage to himself, and an entire story - and hell - of his own. Wandering about the dungeon-like stage, over catwalks, through aisles and onto balconies, he occasionally tries to make contact with the audience. Of course, he is trapped within the written dialogue of the play, so he must communicate through written signs. "Help me," reads one.

Following the phone-in orders of his absent uncle, the Valet reluctantly performs his duties. In his character - whose extended role was written by the actor himself - we see a glimpse of Sartre's Nazi-occupied France and the battle between collaborators and the resistance. The Valet is something of a puppet master, monitoring and messing with the action in the room. Yet he has moments of subversion, as he tries to enlist the help of the audience to free him and the other captives from their parallel hells. Young's performance in the role he created is transfixing, yet it does not distract from the action portrayed on the screens.

The play is therefore "interactive" without the corniness that the word usually implies, and it successfully incorporates multimedia without it overtaking the unsettling beauty of the text. The production is truly something to behold, a chilling foray into an existential hell where one's actions define one's whole morality, and all are guilty of their guilty deeds.

Tags: AMERICAN CONSERVATORY THEATRE, NO EXIT


Hannah Jewell is the lead theater critic.



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