November 15, 2011

To Hell and Back

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It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot in coffee shops and dinner table conversations, a kind of “there!” sprinkled over arguments in the form of tête-à-têtes. Its use seems to put a finishing intellectual touch to one’s remarks, in order to make the individual sound like they know what they are talking about. It’s a pinky-out effect on garden-variety chitchat that may add an air of refinement or credibility to an otherwise “uncultivated” mouth.

How many could actually raise their hands in a discussion section and drop a few mildly confident lines on this daunting “-ism”?

Well I’m a philosophy major, and I sure as hell (pun intended) couldn’t.

It seems fair to call Jean Paul-Sartre the uncle of existentialism (Kierkegaard was widely deemed its father), especially after renowned literary pieces like his hellish one act play No Exit.

It was Sartre who said, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.”

To the existentialist, there is nothing but life itself to give life meaning. Each individual is a summation of his actions and choices, not because they will determine his or her afterlife, but because there is no after-life. It’s a slightly morbid and heavier carpe diem if you will.

No Exit finds Cradeau (formerly Garcin and played by Jeffrey Guyton), Inez (Anya Gibian ’12), and Estelle (Alessandra Hirsch ’12), three recently deceased characters, locked in a room as they determine what their punishment in hell will be, only to find that, as Cradeau’s famous one-liner unveils: “Hell is … other people!”

The value of No Exit is that it takes such complex concepts as life, existentialism, freedom, and choices, and presents them on a game board, with simple players, in a simple setting, simple enough for the layman to take a stab at. Concepts and ideas, however heavy, can still retain their airy nature; wisps of thought are hard to grasp, often slipping through our fingers in their complexity.

Student director Juliana Kleist-Mendez ’12 effortlessly dances through this potential loss in translation, orchestrating a more robust version of Sartre’s No Exit by making tangible the sins, ideas and stories that are key to Sartre’s existentialist undertones.

Kleist-Mendez, through a stroke of ingenuity, paints in an ensemble of three dancers, as her own true “there!” It’s a perfect touch that makes tangible all the motifs and themes that can easily get lost when transcribing back written words to spoken dialogues and soliloquies onstage.

The ensemble, composed of Tre Calhoun, Marie-Elie Aboul-Nasr, and Olivia Powell, embodies the protagonists’ alter egos, storytellers, and arbitrators. Each protagonist has his wide-eyed, angelically dressed demonic counterpart. Striking one initially as pesky distractions but ultimately proving to be vital elements in the holistic picture as fleshy representations of fatal mistakes, human errors, and mortal sentiments. They become such an integral and organic part of the play, that after its end, it seems that, without the ensemble, No Exit would be hardly satiating, much less comprehensible.

Beside such beguiling and otherworldly creatures, the performance of the valet was rather lackluster in his want for credibility. For one who was given such puppeteering power by Sartre, he limits his sadistic cynicism to bouts of unconvincing manic laughter.

Much like existentialism itself, the stage, its players, and the lines of Sartre are rich in their terse simplicity. What straightens the tie, brushes off the shoulders, and gives the extra “oomph” to this handsome presentation is the addition of original details, artfully and subtly interspersed throughout the production.

Estelle’s performance is gratifying, and Cradeau’s increasingly so, but Inez, on par with the originality of her director, brings a painful humanity to her dead character that is impossible to ignore. From minor details like her manly body language as she sits on the couch, to her sardonically bored self-proclamation of a “damned bitch,” student actress Anya Gibian ’12 brings to life new dimensions of Inez not so easily understood by reading Sartre’s play.

There is no trace of anybody but Inez when Inez is onstage. There is no moment where her character is betrayed. Every movement and enunciated syllable is occupied by an agonizingly pessimistic cynic, succumbing to the hellish reality that “nothing on earth (was theirs) any longer.”

The scoffs and perfunctory intonations and gesticulations were the invaluable two cents she dropped in the coffer.

Kleist-Mendez and her assistant director Jesse Turk manipulate several details and motifs in the play to exacerbate some existentialist and otherworldly undertones that could have easily been lost or misinterpreted. Mirrors hidden from the deceased protagonists are “juxtaposed with the ensemble’s” use of them, as explained by Assistant Director Turk. Kleist-Mendez fosters the use of color on stage, blanketing the jaundiced protagonists with costumes of cowardly yellow. And blurts of 60 hertz of white noise would have made Rod Serling proud, in the eeriest Twilight Zone-esque buzzing, that serve to pester one’s thoughts of the afterlife.

Says director Juliana Kleist-Mendez, “It is not possible to have a complete understanding of yourself without another person but how can you surrender the power to determine your being to another person? Thus, hell is in fact other people because it is the inability to self-determine one’s existence.”

Fortunately, No Exit will be playing one last time this weekend from November 17th to the 19th. It is an opportunity to go to hell and back, with at least a pocket full of impressive intellectual jargon and an hour or so of contemplation on the meaning of life.

Original Author: Sam Martinez