Hartford Stage, Hartford
It is interesting to note that two recently-staged plays both take place in Hell—but what very different Hells! Last month’s “Eurydice” at Yale Rep was a modern take-off on the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, sending the lovers down into a very real, very physical, locale.
And now comes Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit.” But Sartre’s Hell exists, not so much in a physical location (though his characters are assembled in one room) as in one’s mind. This stylish version of Sartre’s noted Existentialist play has moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut, from Cambridge down to Hartford. It is the American Repertory Theatre production under Jerry Mouawad’s direction.
“No Exit” spells out one Sartre philosophical theory--namely, that we can know ourselves only through others’ perception of us. And ultimately, upon knowing ourselves, we must learn to take personal responsibility, to forge our lives accordingly. These among other theories comprise Sartre’s own brand of Existentialism, a movement which has come to be identified with his name (though he was not its originator nor its only theorist).
“No Exit” brings three people together—Garcin (a dapper, well-mannered gentleman), Estelle (a blowzy seductress) and Inez (a tough-minded Lesbian). These three incompatible characters are doomed to spend an eternity as roommates. Each arrives in this kind of waiting room or drawing room, knowing he has died, is in Hell, and will be tortured. The Valet, who has escorted them, laughs when they ask for the whereabouts of “the torturers.” The torture, they will discover, lies not with whips and knives, but within each one’s mind. In this mirrorless room each one serves as mirror to the others, each one stripping away the other’s pretensions. “Hell is other people!” observes one character.
Sartre’s powerful message comes across best in a stark, stripped-down production. But here, unfortunately, director Mouawad resorts to gimmicks, which, though intriguing and dramatic, serve as distractions. The stage, for instance, is a wobbly platform that constantly tilts and tips as they move about unsteadily, like a Coney Island attraction. It is a stylish room, complete with three miniature sofas, one striking door, and the unstable floor. What is Mouawad’s point? Is he suggesting that the characters are on unsteady ground, uncertain of their circumstances? Perhaps. Interpret it as you will, or consider it just a dizzying effect. The set, designed by the director himself, adds to the evening’s excitement, combining with Kenneth Helvig’s stark lighting. But Mouawad offers us style instead of substance.
As to the performers, Will LeBow, Karen MacDonald, and Paula Plum are competent but not inspired in their roles as the newly-arrived tenants of Hell. Only Remo Aircaldi as the Valet, gives an inspired performance, putting an Absurdist stamp on the play. It is Aircaldi, with his masklike face and clownish movements, who lets us know we are in Sartre’s Hell.
In summary: as a philosopher might have said, less is more, and, in this “No Exit,” more is less.
-- Irene Backalenick
Oct. 22, 2006