Jean-Paul Sarte’s “No Exit” is Impressive at SOB

Sunday, September 1, 2013

No-Exit-crop“HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE.” This often-quoted statement is the dark, stark theme of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 90-minute one-act, “No Exit,” currently wowing audiences at South of Broadway Theatre Company in North Chuck’s Olde Village.

Lest you think this iconic play will leave you depressed or melancholy, fear not: the production is so splendidly acted and directed, you will exit feeling uplifted, gratified that SOB founder and producer Mary Gould has managed to gather ‘round her a phalanx of gifted folks well and truly able to stage such an intricate piece of artistry.

And to do it in the round! Artistic Director Mark Gorman is clearly expert at knowing how to use every inch of stage seen from the infinite number of angles in a circle the audience forms. He also drew from his four actors an infinite variety of moods and emotions as the performers reveal more and more of their increasingly grotesque personalities.

If you are unfamiliar with this play, you learn very shortly that the setting is Hell.  Onto the spare set, containing only three trunk-size benches covered with ornate material, meant to be Empire sofas, and a monstrosity of a sculpture on a pedestal center stage, strides a frock coat-bedecked, already threatening person (Julie Hammond as the Valet) inspecting the premises. Enter a man known only as Garcin, played with stunning skill by veteran actor JC Conway, who is astonished that there are no torture chambers, no fire and brimstone, no lurking devil. He figures out his plight as soon as he hears the details of his situation from our arrogant, even disrespectful, valet: There are no mirrors or windows; the lights are always on; the bell pull to summon help is “capricious,” as dysfunctional as the souls inhabiting the space. There is no escape. There is only eternity.

Just when we think, “Well, what the hell?” in saunters Actors’ Equity member Kristen Kos as Inez in a severely tailored power blouse and trousers, immediately giving off angry vibes as she taps around the room, insulting Garcin, her face the picture of snide. Conflicts that become more and more contentious grow in kind and nature as Soul Number Three rushes across what now seems a crowded room—but there is hardly that South Pacific recognition of your own true love. Dressed to the nines, complete with long pearls and satin evening bag, Haydn Haring strikes the perfect pitch as Estelle, the epitome of shallow playgirl much more interested in herself and her looks than her fellow sinners. And with no mirrors or even panes of glass in which to admire her gorgeous visage!

As the stories of the lives of these three unfold, deeply shameful confessions are wrenched from each amidst arguments, taunts, threats, and a strongly nuanced sexual element. Now they know why they were expressly chosen to be put together, how all of them are destined to suffer endlessly: by tormenting each other.

And how does one portray a “tormented soul” ? Well, by ranting of course, with jagged-edged barbs, with an utter lack of empathy, with providing false hope. But these actors convey with unparalleled skill a degree of intensity that makes Sartre’s drama that much more riveting. The hatred Kos directs from her eyes, the nakedness of Conway’s cowardice, the posturing Haring projects as she attempts to exploit Garcin’s attraction to her, had us squirming in our seats—precisely as the playwright, a renowned proponent of existentialism, meant us to be.

Although Saturday evening was the final performance at the South of Broadway theatre, Gould has arranged a unique partnership with the home of the Flowertown Players in her decade-long effort to provide quality, edgy and professional theatre to the wider community.

So you too can squirm in your seat at the historic James E. Dean Theatre in Summerville, where the same cast will open this show beginning Thursday, September 5, for a two-week run, with Gorman adapting his insightful staging to a proscenium venue.

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It is with life as it is with art: the deeper one penetrates, the broader the view.                   
~ Johann Goethe