Reviewed by Will Stackman
As one of the signature pieces of post-WWII European drama, Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" is not often produced in this country, even though the text of "Huis Clos" remains high on the reading lists for studies in both Modern Drama and 20th Century Philosophy. Perhaps this short Absurdist drama's grim view of reality has been incorporated so fully into modern playwrighting that the conflict between its three main characters seems old news. This current revival at the ART was directed by Jerry Mouawad, a Lecoq-trained physical theatre devotee and Co-Artistic Director of Seattle's Imago Theatre, where this version was first staged. He's placed the action, which occurs in an small room in Hell, on a square stage floating off the floor on a central pivot--with appropriate mechanics to keep its shifts from becoming too violent. As the cast -- a murdered leftist journalist; a lesbian whose lover has gassed herself; and an oversexed blonde who murdered her child, causing its father to shoot himself -- proceeds from scene to scene through Mouawad's strict choreography for the play, the floor tilts under them. One corner is pointed towards the audience, the only door is on the stage left rear edge. The metaphor is obvious, of course, but from time to time quite effective.
The staging however never seems necessary, due mostly to the impressive cast of ART veterans performing the show. With some 250 productions for the company among them, Will LeBow (Garcin), Paula Plum (Inez), Karen MacDonald (Estelle), and Remo Airaldi (The Valet) have each weathered much more extreme staging and costumery. This ensemble could do the play quite successfully on a plain stage with general lighting and no directorial tricks. In fact, since they've had to concentrate on the intricate blocking to deal with the constantly shifting floor, some line readings seem insufficiently explored, especially in LeBow's later scenes. It may be that his distinctive voice in this case, always clearly understood and effective, overrides possible subtle interpretations. It would be interesting to see what this cast might discover as the play runs.
Their characterizations are unique and effective, however. Mouawad has hewed to Sartre's original text--at least as embodied in the familiar Stuart Gilbert translation. Inez's declared lesbian lifestyle is almost matter of course on today's stage, but Plum finds ways to create a fully rounded personality in a role which can easily become stereotyped. MacDonald creates an Estelle with emotional depth behind the shallow bimbo which she can play so easily. LeBow hints at his character's ultimate lack of moral fiber behind Garcin's assurance and bluster. Even Airaldi, playing the Valet as a sort of devilish bellhop, finds another interesting clown to portray. The women especially are helped by Rafael Jaen's careful late '40's couture, which has Inez in a gray wool dress with pink-accented kick pleats and Estelle in a rumpled blue evening gown with visible lingerie. He even manages to suggest the vaguely South American origins of these three. Airaldi, with his rotund pyhsique, is done up in a parody of the familiar Phillip-Morris mascot, with a slight Lewis Carroll air.
Imago's first joint venture with the ART was last summer's successful presentation of their family variety show "Frogz" in the new Zero Arrow St. facility. Perhaps Mouawad and his partner, Carol Triffle, will be able to stage an original piece for the ART in the future, employing the talents of the MXART graduate students. Of all the guest directors who've been at the Loeb in recent years, he and Imago may have the most real theatrical insight to contribute. His constructivist approach to the setting for this play would probably be more effective with slightly less seasoned actors who were able to explore the ramifications of such difficult staging over a longer period of time, both in rehearsal and performance. Physical theatre is obviously a major influence upon contemporary staging, and providing its techniques can be used without denigrating the text, may ultimately lead to an effective synthesis. In any case, audiences here should look forward to any future efforts the Imago Theatre may be willing to bring to the area.