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.

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