by ANNA ROSENSWEIG
Watching Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is a lot like watching reality television. Personalities clash and secrets are revealed. Alliances are formed, broken and reconstituted. The more we know about each character, the more we are repulsed. And yet powerful voyeuristic impulses keep us riveted to every sophomoric outburst and salacious revelation.
But while reality show contestants choose their particular hell, the characters in No Exit do not. The play opens as the Valet (Dietrich Poppen) ushers a man named Cradeu (Scott Keely) into the room where he’ll be spending eternity. The setting does not square with Cradeu’s expectations of fire and brimstone. The room contains not elaborate instruments of pain but rather three dingy sets of chairs, a small statue, and a letter opener. “Where’s the torturer?” “Where are the thumbscrews?” Cradeu gets no real information from the Valet except that the lights stay on all the time. Constant light and heat are the only features these quarters share with standard visions of hell.
Cradeu comes famously to understand that “Hell is other people.” For as soon as he settles into the room, two more guests arrive. The first is Inez (Gail Ottmar), a brash woman who seems unsurprised to find herself in hell and uninterested in making small talk with Cradeu. Next enters Estelle (Emily Dussault), a seemingly demure socialite who claims to have no idea why she deserves eternal damnation. These three shared no worldly connections but their personalities and past crimes are perfectly calibrated for other-worldly quarrels and spats. They prod and taunt each other until their facades crumble and their dignity shreds. Old rivals, lost lovers and missed chances are all fair game as the three roommates create their collective hell.
It takes strong acting chops to pull off such intricate and sustained mutual repugnance. The GonzoGroup’s actors do not disappoint. Keely’s Cradeu is nuanced and arresting. He brings out the truly loathsome elements of his character without reducing it to caricature. We learn that Cradeu abused his wife and shirked confrontations with France’s Nazi-occupiers. And yet he desperately attempts to convince himself, Estelle, and Inez of his fundamental nobility and courage. Keely carries off this elaborate self-deception in a way that garners both pity and revulsion.
Emily Dussault accomplishes a similar feat as Estelle. Her well-calibrated performance exposes all of Estelle’s tricks. Dussault deftly embodies this orphan-waif-turned-rich-man’s-unsatisfied-wife with her affected high-class voice and posture. This persona comes through most successfully when Estelle expresses horror at Inez and Cradeu’s lack of social graces. Of course, she only pretends to be repelled by her companions and beams delighted looks their way whenever they compete for her attention and affection.
Gail Ottmar’s performance as Inez is less consistent but still laudable. Her tendency to yell and gesture wildly is more distracting than effective. It is in the more quiet moments that Ottmar’s craft really shines. In these moments her gruff sadness resonates and makes her the most sympathetic of the three characters.
Dietrich Poppen also succeeds as the Valet. The decision to render him as a sniveling and giggling barefoot priest is surprisingly funny and well executed. Credit for this successful performance should also go to Luke Weber, whose direction exploits the talents of the actors. The three main characters are on stage for the entire two-hour performance but the various movements and tableaus keep the drama varied and compelling.
The only technical problem is the lighting design. At times the light on one character dims while the other two have an altercation. This selective lighting works against the play’s premise. For example, Cradeu’s complaint that he cannot kiss Estelle while Inez watches falls flat because the lights on Inez are dimmed. We need to see Inez seeing the others to experience their version of hell.
Although they did not exactly choose to be stuck in this room together, Sartre’s text demands that they take responsibility for their predicament. It’s not happenstance that brings them here, but rather a series of chosen actions. They can fool themselves into believing otherwise, but they can’t fool each other. Still, they keep trying. And the GonzoGroup’s production highlights the vanity of their attempts to great effect.
Presented by The GonzoGroup Theatre
Lowry Lab Theater
350 Saint Peter St.
St. Paul, MN 55102