31 January 2016

No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre

The MAC production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit—directed by Nicki Davis—was the third production of Sartre’s masterpiece I’ve seen. While there were a few hiccups, it was overall a strong production with very good performances.

No Exit is perhaps the most iconic existential play. Set in hell, the play tells the story of three people condemned to remain in a Second Empire French drawing room forever. Initially things don’t seem so bad (this is hell, after all, and there aren’t any physical torture devices or anything like that). But the denizens of the room—Joseph Garcin, Inez Serrano, and Estelle Regault—soon come to the horrible realization that they are to be one another’s tormenters for eternity. In true Sartrean fashion, each character needs something from the others which the others can never give.

The actors playing Garcin (Justin Grow), Inez (Seret Cole), and Estelle (Tawnya Drake) gave excellent performances. Each character in turn moves through confidence, feigned indifference, rage, and disgust—a gamut of emotions performed admirably by the three occupants of the room. Drake was the most animated of the three performers, constantly trying to find some kind of reflective surface to satisfy the vain Estelle’s need to see herself, whether in the brass fittings of her handbag, the paper knife, or even the bronze statue of Leonardo over the mantelpiece. The constant activity bespoke a character unable to keep her mind on anything other than her physical presence for any length of time.

Grow and Cole played the animosity between Garcin and Inez well. These characters have a more deep-seated existential anger than Estelle does, and much of this anger grows out of their rivalry. Inex seeks the affections of Estelle, which she can never get, and Garcin needs Inez to affirm that he is not a coward, which she will never do. In particular, Cole played the sadistic Inez to perfection, digging her claws into Grow and Drake at every opportunity. And Grow vacillated between Garcin’s macho bluster, obsequious politeness, and flaccid groveling.

The other performer was Sean Coombs, playing the Valet. Coombs’ performance wasn’t bad, but it didn’t fit my taste for the character. I see the Valet as a kind of Victorian butler, someone who displays little emotion or reaction to what’s going on, but also a figure of detached dignity. In Coombs’ performance, the Valet mocked Garcin for his many questions and presumptuousness, often imitating Grow when his back was turned.

The costuming in the show was generally good, with both Cole and Drake in fine dresses that matched them well with the sofas. For my money Coombs had the best costume, with a nice black suit, accented well with red tie and glasses which gave just a hint of devilishness. But Grow’s costume was one of the most distracting elements for me. First off, the trousers, contemporary jacket cut, black and neon green tie, and black shirt did not place the play at the time Sartre sets it (though Cole’s and Drake’s dresses would have worked fine for the WWII era). The sport coat seemed slightly large, and Grow was continually playing at the button or playing with the tie. And the tie itself was kind of hideous—a black base (on a black shirt, seriously?) with a splotch of neon green. It should probably have been possible to ignore the tie if Grow hadn’t been constantly fiddling with it, adjusting it, or moving it.

Hijacked Lives, by Donald Fidler

I was fortunate to see Donald Fidler’s Hijacked Lives in its premier performance, directed by David Beach. Although billed as part of a two-show evening of Existential Theatre, I wouldn’t have called this an existentialist play. Whether it is existential or not, however, the show is intriguing, engaging, witty, and fun.

The story begins with a wealthy older man carjacked by a young man trying to get to Chicago. The curmudgeonly old man—played by David Beach—has cancer and is unafraid to die, but he cooperates with the young man—played by Travis Teffner. As the two drive from Pittsburgh toward Chicago, they come to know one another: the young man’s eccentricities and fears (he can’t take public transportation and hates the yellow-orange of school buses), the old man’s suppressed guilt and self-loathing over his personal rudeness and ruthless fracking business. Through the car trip, meals in fancy restaurants, and nights in nice hotels, the two passengers grow close to one another.

Beach and Teffner have excellent chemistry as performers, having worked together on several previous shows. While both occasionally fumbled lines, their personal interactions brought the life the depth of this story. The closing moment of sympathy between the two men as they begin the long drive home was powerful—without words the two actors penetrated the characters and showed a complicated, reluctant communion between two people.

As individual performers both Teffner and Beach were excellent. The old man is generally curmudgeonly, but there are moments of genuine tenderness, and even a paternal desire to protect the young man. In the restaurant scene, Beach most brought the largely repressed tenderness to the fore, when he teaches the young man how to eat bread sticks in olive oil and parmesan, for instance. While it is a very simple moment, Beach imbued the scene with caring.

For the young man, Teffner was called upon for a wider range of emotions, which he performed admirably. The character ranges from shame after knocking over water and oil in the restaurant, to deep-seated anger when he learns that the old man is a fracking executive responsible for the deteriorating conditions at his grandmother’s apartment. Teffner performed all of these emotions convincingly and his performance was consistently strong.

The set for the show was simple (as is characteristic of the MAC), and the simplicity of the set and the continuity between the performance space and the house—there’s no barrier between the stage and the audience tables—provided a perfect intimacy for a show like Hijacked Lives. The show almost needs the tight shared space of a blackbox theatre because the content so focuses on transcending emotional boundaries—the closeness between performers and audience allows a reproduction of that transcendence as we emotionally connect with the characters.