April 10, 2003

Where We Are Is Hell

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It turns out hell is not a volcanic fireworld, but a simple four-cornered room. This means that The Black Box Series has finally produced a play about an actual black box. Set in the dark cubic interior of a stage in the basement of The Schwartz Center, this production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, uses the intentional informality and abstractness of the Black Box Series to create a “hell-in-the-round” that absorbs both the actors and the audience. By extending the set of the play into the audience itself, the audience is forced to confront a depiction of an incarcerating and iniminal existence would be vastly less effective in a more typical, less intimate setting.

In this version of Sartre’s infamous play, hell is a bare room, a repository for its inhabitants’ phobias, self-deceptions, and vanities. With seats strategically placed around the perimeter of the set and a hauntingly opulent chandelier used to ironically taunt the characters’ tragedies, No Exit creates an arena, a sparring forum. The three characters condemned to hell and fettered to one another enter this inferno, knowing that exoneration is impossible. One by one, each character enters the room, accompanied by the Valet’s (Beau Brinker ’05) sardonic ridicule. Strutting onto stage to the rhythm of jazz standards, the characters immediately relinquish any dignity they once had as they enter damnation. Garcin, a pacifist, (Matt Volner ’06) is a tortured and “aloof” example of bipolar disorder, fluctuating between simple resignment and overly maudlin desires. Played with a stealthy duplicity by Colista K. Turner ’05, the cynical Inez plays off of her hell-mates’ uncontrollable urges for communication and sympathy. Finally, the ingenuous Estelle (Chloe Liederman ’03) is prone to histrionic fits of lust and revenge.

While the play is plurivocal enough to assure that no one interpretation suffices to explain it entirely, the fundamental question of the play is how one can continue to be dignified, honest, and ethical in an environment that is literally a hell-on-earth, prohibiting even the most reasonable demands: peace of mind, significance, and existence as such.

All of the conflicts between these diverse personalities occur with such physicality that the play seems to possess an almost exuberant choreography as characters careen around the room, switching chairs, begging, dancing, clinging to, yet despising, one another. This motion is particularly effective as the lack of walls or props seems as if it is happening within the audience. As director Jennifer Weinbaum ’04 explains, defending the use of the “theatre-in-the-round” format, “The feeling of claustrophobia that is inherent in the text really came out with the audience sitting along all four sides. The audience, like the play’s characters, is forced to find that everywhere they look there are other people. This allows a certain versatility for the actors as it’s like having four sets.”

While No Exit’s content is enough to be entertaining and perspicacious by itself, this production also adds a few subtle touches to amplify certain aspects of the play. Besides the jazz music, the costumes all represent distinct eras. “The characters are from different time periods. Therefore, Garcin’s clothes and music, are from the 1930s. Inez’s are from the 1940s, and Estelle’s are from the 1950s.” This creates a universality absent from a simple reading of the script and helps explain the individual concerns of each character.

A notoriously difficult play for actors, “No Exit” is written so that the events in the present are simultaneously penetrated by the characters’ recollection of their lives and their observation of their peers and family. Volner, Turner, and Liederman handle their roles with aplomb. Liederman, in particular, can transform from a melodramatic harlequin into a cold, indifferent presence. Between her and the script, the play’s bonecrushing seriousness is alleviated to an endurable and occasionally hilarious tragicomedy.

The play’s investigation of the suffering and indecency of both solitude and society is especially relevant to contemporary culture. Sartre’s play asks how we can determine what is ethical. Although selected before the events of the last year, Weinbaum still finds that “this is a very important and interesting play to be doing right now. If you’re a pacifist and against a war, what does it mean to oppose it? What does it mean to stand up for your principles when it’s also the easiest way out? How can you reconcile these circumstances?” What better place to ponder such eternal questions than in hell? It’s not like you can leave.

No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre plays in CTA’s Black Box Theater April 11 at 4:30 pm April 12-13 at 7:30 pm. For tickets call 254-ARTS.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt

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