Joel Cochrane, Tara Laberge, Jennifer Roberts & DJ Gellatly. Photo by Jason Mehmel.
February 14 – 22, 2014
Endeavor Arts Gallery
It’s a good thing for me that Hell isn’t seeing No Exit. I’ve seen it in a black box setting, set in an asylum, done with multimedia effects and even staged as a puppet show. But no matter where or how the 1944 Jean-Paul Sartre one-act, existential angsty play is presented, my measure of its success is the same. Does the production convey the claustrophobic atmosphere and revelatory character development/narrative message that Sartre intended? In judging Theatre BSMT’s and VIA Theatre’s production against these criteria, I’m afraid the answer is no.
Director Jason Mehmel ensures all the pieces are there. Set on a stage outfitted with a door, three couches and a sculpture, we meet three newly dead and damned souls — a journalist, Cradeau (Joel Cochrane); a secretary, Inez (Tara Marlena Laberge); and a socialite, Estelle (Jennifer Roberts). Ushered into the space by a formally dressed valet (an overly smiley DJ Gellatly), the three are locked together in a room they come to understand is their permanent place in Hell. What the three also come to realize is that their damnation consists not of thumbscrews and hell-fire, but instead of having to marinate in their own despicable true natures as reflected back to them through the eyes and opinions of the other two characters. While the play’s famous line, Hell is other people, is often misunderstood to mean that the worst torture is the bother of other people, Sartre was instead making a far more disturbing and insightful observation with his play. Hell is other people who see through our façade and expose us for who we really are.
But Sartre doesn’t want the audience to understand this too quickly. The play’s slow reveal takes place through the interaction, argument, confession and ultimate horror of its characters. Cradeau sheds his civilized demeanour, exposing the war deserting coward and wife abuser he really was. Estelle starts off as a savvy, albeit immodest, flirt. But the batting of her eyelashes and need for a mirror to check her lipstick soon belies a vanity so evil that no less than a newborn child was murdered to satisfy her wishes. Inez, the smartest of the bunch, is the quickest to admit that underneath her calm bookish exterior, lies a person who would gladly manipulate another (in her case another woman) out of a marriage in order to fulfill her own lustful desires.
Mehmel’s and ultimately his cast’s misstep is that these evolutions are more flatlines than story arcs. Cochrane’s Cradeau projects so strongly right off the bat that any effort at being civilized is overshadowed by a performance that sounds more like yelling than acting. Furthermore, the emotional divide between Cochrane’s portrayal of Cradeau’s initial confidence and what is supposed to be his final dismay at being thought a coward is negligible, rendering his journey impotent. Roberts with her breathy southern-bell-like voice manages to conjure a manipulate vixen well enough but shows no range when Estelle’s true nature is exposed. With a hand always awkwardly placed on her hip and another hand over her stomach (which weirdly brought to mind visions of pregnancy belly-cupping) Roberts makes no effort to advance her character emotionally or physically after her secret is out. In fact, the more she complains that the other characters can’t possibly want her now that she is a baby-killer, the less believable it is as a result of her one-note performance. The bright spot in all this is Laberge’s Inez. An incredibly strong performance in an otherwise lackluster cast, Laberge manages to capture the emotional subtleties of the script and give them flight. As the characters in turn describe events they can still see on earth, only Laberge is able to take the audience on the journey with her. We sit rapt as she describes seeing her love nest being rented out to of all things, a straight couple, and the palpable pain she exudes ensures that our eyes will always be searching for her onstage. The same strength is shown in Laberge’s singular ability to manage the emotional nuances of torturing the others versus being tormented herself.
If the cast performances and direction were lacking, the choice of venue and resulting design didn’t help matters. Set in the Endeavour Art Gallery, the stage made the production problematic right from the outset. Instead of a stark, claustrophobic space, the square stage (which was ‘walled off’ on two sides by the audience) backed onto one wall covered in art and another with semi-curtained ceiling high windows. Hardly the suffocating and oppressive room Sartre called for. That Mehmel had the actors seemingly contemplate the pretty pictures of birds and branches hung on the wall for the first while and then pretend that they weren’t there, made the setting even less ideal. In addition, a roaring on again, off again noise that I assume was the gallery heating system not only competed with the cast for volume (save the voluminous Cochrane) but was a distinct distraction from the headiness of the dialogue.
Sartre believed that in the end, we should be judged by the sum total of our behaviors which we executed of our own free will. Using this system to judge this production of No Exit, I’d say that overall no malice was done to Sartre’s script, but then very little justice was done to it either.
For angsty existentialist lovers – Despite one terrific performer, this production suffers from too much blandness and not enough believable tormented emotion. SKIP IT
For Sartre newbies – I do mean it as a compliment when I say that it’s certainly not the worst No Exit I’ve seen. The bones of what makes the play so compelling are there, you just might not get why it’s such a classic from this production. MAYBE SEE IT
For occasional theatre goers – I have to image that your version of hell is a ninety-minute existentialist exploration of the true meaning of damnation. SKIP IT
For theater junkies – The space is problematic, the effect muted and the performances generally lacking. Yes Laberge is a bright spot, but better to tuck her name in your back pocket and look forward to seeing her another time. SKIP IT