Jonathon Young (back to camera) contemplates Andy Thompson (in video) in “No Exit”
Photo by Michael Julian Berz
By Jean-Paul Sartre
Adapted by Paul Bowles
Performed in concert with “The Valet” by Jonathon Young
Conceived and directed by Kim Collier
American Conservatory Theater
Geary Theater, San Francisco
April 7-May 1, 2011
(See video short from Canadian production below.)
“Ladies and gentlemen, please take note of your nearest exit in case of an emergency…” an announcement as ubiquitous in theaters these days as the one about turning off your cell phones, which it usually follows. But what if you couldn’t? Leave by the nearest exit, that is, emergency or not. And what if you couldn’t turn off your cell phone because they had taken it away at the door? You would be trapped in your seats, surrounded by the same people, watching the same play in an endless loop with no way to call for assistance. Welcome to Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of damnation.
The existentialist classic “No Exit” is given a breezy, exciting airing at ACT in San Francisco, courtesy of the Canadian Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theatre, whose director, Kim Collier, both conceived and directed the show. Collier’s conception turns the drama literally inside out by having the three principals, who are locked together in a hotel room, seen only on film, once they have entered the allotted space. The Valet, a minor character in Sartre’s script, relegated to ushering people in, has been expanded in a role written and performed by Jonathon Young and occupies the larger playing area of the stage. And, in the end, is he in any less of a hell than those he has locked up? He watches and listens to them tear each other apart; for him, there is no exit as well.
It’s a sharp conception and the performances are up to it. We experience the Valet’s frustration as he eavesdrops, holds up flash cards to remind us to look for ourselves in the people in the room and pleads with his uncle on the phone (uncle’s in charge of the third floor of this mysterious hostelry) to let him bend the rules, just a little. The unhappy guests are, in order of their arrival: Cradeau (Andy Thompson) a philandering journalist who was executed for collaborating with the Nazis (the original play stems from 1944 and there are some parallels between the “hotel” and a concentration camp) but who really is being punished for his heartless treatment of his wife and Inez (Laara Sadiq), a ruthlessly aggressive lesbian who, having torn her lover from her husband, gloats over the husband’s subsequent death until the lover turns on the oven and gasses them both. The last arrival, Estelle (Lucia Frangione) is a vain, uppity socialite—your typical “blonde bombshell”—who suffers mightily from the lack of a mirror (the Valet, on orders, has taken them all away) and spends a lot of energy fighting off the amorous advances of Inez and seeking those of Cradeau who, no longer able to torture his wife, is hardly interested. Estelle’s crime, eventually revealed, may eclipse them all.
Kirsten McGhie’s 1940s costumes, Jay Gower Taylor’s scenic design and, most of all, Andy Thompson’s video that plays overhead, sometimes in close-up, sometimes showing all three “guests” but never giving a full sense of the room (which audience members are invited onstage to inspect after the bows), enhance the whole thing. If hell, as Sartre observes, is not a place but other people, there might not be three more entertaining sinners to share it with. But you don’t get to pick your roommates, and I guess we’ll each have to find out for ourselves.