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Life in Hell

Theater Review: No Exit


Published February 9, 2006 at 1:32 a.m.

Hell: We toss the word around rather freely these days. Hell is rush-hour traffic on Williston Road. Hell is spending the holidays with my egomaniacal brother.

French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) lived surrounded by more powerful and poetic images of Hell on Earth. During his childhood, World War I turned a large swath of northern France into a bombed-out moonscape. Captured as a soldier in the next Euro-bloodbath, he spent nine months in a German concentration camp before escaping in 1941. When he wrote the play No Exit in Nazi-occupied Paris during the spring of 1944, he lived in constant peril as an active member of the underground Resistance movement.

In No Exit, however, Sartre does not depict Hell as a mustard gas-filled trench or a Nazi gas chamber. He also forgoes Judeo-Christian fire-and-brimstone imagery. Hell is just a drab hotel room, with both furniture and guests uncomfortably mismatched. Hell is not about the place; it's about the people. Most of all, Hell is about learning to live with the most difficult person of all -- yourself.

Under Joanne Farrell's skillful direction, the talented cast of the Champlain College production brought an edgy sheen to Sartre's existential exercise. Professor Wes Donehower, chair of Champlain's Arts and Sciences division, created a fresh translation from the original French that emphasized the text's satiric side. At times the Farrell-Donehower take on the script felt a little like an Oscar Wilde drawing-room comedy, dripping with arch sarcasm -- to the delight of the audience but perhaps to the slight detriment of the starker message Sartre was trying to convey.

The play opens with ambiguity: Sartre doesn't immediately let the audience know the action takes place, as it were, Down Under. The characters know their destination, however. They're just surprised by the decor. Where are the whips and racks and hot pokers, journalist Joseph Garcin asks the porter who escorts him to his room. Where is the torturer?

The porter ushers in two more guests in quick succession: Ines Serrano, a bitter, lesbian postal clerk, and Estelle Rigault, a vapid and promiscuous young socialite. The three awkward roommates, barely able to feign politeness, immediately begin finding fault with the accommodations and each other's behavior. They had expected to find people they knew in Hell, whether friend or foe, not a set of disagreeable strangers.

Ines figures out why Hell's bureaucrats have tossed the clashing lot together, and why there is no professional tormentor. "They're economizing on personnel . . . Each one of us is the torturer for the others." But what has brought each of them to eternal damnation in the first place? Ines knows, Estelle stubbornly insists she hasn't got a clue, and Garcin continues to hide behind his heroic mask as a crusading, pacifist reporter. Their prescription for torture? Beating a painful path to the truth.

Garcin realizes safety lies in simply not talking, each of them retreating to a corner of the room and ignoring the others. No talk, no torture. But the women need to interact. Ines, the provocateur, is driven by her mind and wit; Estelle, the nymphomaniac, needs to feed her body. "If they'd put me in a room with men," Garcin moans. "Men can keep their mouths shut!" Battling and bargaining ensues as they deconstruct and reconstruct how well their actions lived up to their intentions.

For a while the characters are able to see and hear brief vignettes of life continuing without them back on Earth. But eventually this ability disappears, and they realize they have only each other. It's not a happy ending. They can't change the actions that defined their lives. Their discussing and disputing will last, well, an eternity.

Annemieke Wade portrayed Ines with a hard-edged brilliance. Her angularity of action and attitude -- direct and relentlessly in-your-face -- contrasted distinctly with Alexandra Sevakian's curvaceousness, and evasiveness, as Estelle. Ines is the smartest character of the three and the one least given to self-delusion. She also has the greatest need to manipulate. Wade's expressive face and low, throaty voice conjured the vivid range of Ines' gamesmanship: sloe-eyed and purring to allure; glinting and growling to threaten. Her mocking, slightly satanic laugh underscored Ines' role as the one who shatters and unmasks her comrades' self-deceits.

As the flighty, fidgety Estelle, Sevakian drew on a wealth of mannerisms to express her superficial socialite's discomfiture that Hades features unchic decor, companions beneath her social standing, and no mirrors in which to fix her makeup. Not to mention so many unpleasant questions. She constantly tended to her grooming by smoothing her clothes and hair. Adopting the body language of a pouty child to reflect Estelle's lack of emotional maturity, Sevakian pursed her mouth, twirled her blond ringlets, and darkened her brow to express confusion or dismay.

Estelle's infantile side made her crude sexual advances on the middle-aged Garcin feel even seedier. Ines is also attracted to Estelle, and all three actors portrayed the twisted love triangle to which they've been condemned with a convincing mix of ardor and anguish.

John David Alexander's performance as Garcin was often commanding and compelling, but at times it felt curiously restrained. Garcin is the play's most complex character -- a self-styled hero, forced to acknowledge that his life was ultimately defined by a final act of cowardice. Hell is an emotional rollercoaster for him, with Ines and Estelle as polar-opposite engines of female energy propelling him on a dizzying ride. Alexander deftly showed Garcin's peaks and valleys -- flashing anger, swaggering lust, head-hanging despair. But some of the transitional loops and corkscrews between the emotional extremes could have used more subtle undulation.

Farrell's direction made the 90 minutes of the one-act play move swiftly. (Sartre wrote No Exit as a single act so that his 1944 audience could make it home before the Nazi curfew.) She met the challenge of staging a talky piece that has only one set and three actors, hitting Goldilocks' golden mean between too much movement and too little.

One awkward choice for the set was the unnaturally low seating. This forced the performers, particularly the women, into ungainly positions, especially when sitting for extended periods. Perhaps Farrell and set designer Robert Wolff wanted to make an artistic statement: Beware the ergonomics of Hell. But since the characters were continually pointing out the room's other discomforts, they certainly would have complained about this as well. Cora Fauser's elegant costumes, on the other hand, featured a polished, 1940s fit, well designed and tailored. We should all look so stylish in the afterlife.

Although No Exit is commonly referred to as Sartre's second play, it was actually his third. In the concentration camp, the well-known atheist wrote his first, a Nativity play entitled Bariona. The Nazis were blind to the script's subversiveness: Christian symbols hid political messages and brutish Romans represented modern Germans. Christmas performances were allowed at the camp, and Sartre witnessed theater's visceral impact when several prisoners converted to Christianity after seeing the play.

Sartre befriended a coterie of priests who were fellow prisoners, with whom he could vigorously debate theology and philosophy. While his atheism didn't waver, the priests were powerful models of principled men whose conduct matched their convictions. The camp also impressed on Sartre the notion of collective responsibility. Survival was impossible if one is alone.

Together, Sartre's war experiences crystallized his understanding of man as a social animal, defined by his actions. There is no escaping accountability for them, to ourselves and to each other. Even in Hell, where the door is locked, the lights are always on and there is no exit.