TheaterMark Rudio

Hell really is other people

TheaterMark Rudio
This probably wasn't the best week for me to sit in a theater and watch a play in which the main theme is "Hell is other people." I certainly have been feeling that way lately myself. Yet there I was taking in ACT's imported production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No ExitIt's easily the best thing I've seen on the Geary Stage in some time.
Director  Kim Collier's concept is a difficult one to pull off in theory, but it's brilliantly executed. She doesn't break the fourth wall- she locks the actors behind it. Hell's new arrivals make their entrances and are escorted across the littered stage to the door of a spare, windowless, Second Empire room and are then noisily locked in by the Valet (Jonathon Young), who remains outside during the next 80 minutes performing his own twist of the play's theme in concert with the action taking place behind the locked door.
Inez (Laara Sadiq, left), Estelle (Lucia Frangione, center), and Cradeau (Andy Thompson) find themselves locked in a hotel room in the afterlife. Photo by Michael Julian Berz.
As each of the trio enter, a camera inside the room captures them on a large screen against the back of the stage. Credeau (Andy Thompson), the wife abuser and possible collaborator, is the first to enter. Thompson bears more than a passing resemblance to Monty Python's John Cleese, which adds a layer of weirdness to the already unusual staging- as if we are watching someone we know being inhabited by someone else whom we don't like- kind of like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

When Inez (Laara Sadiq) enters and is locked in with Credeau, another screen appears on the wall and the audience watches the two actors inhabiting two spaces which are different and yet the same, in a very DePalma-esque way. Sadiq has one of those faces that are familiar as well- in this case she reminds me of Marisa Tomei. Prickly and sharp-tongued, Inez's entrance  fills the room with tension- quite an accomplishment given the actors are no longer in front of the audience.

The triptych is complete when Estelle (Lucia Frangione) enters, and she upsets the angry balance by seeming out of place with her refined manners and poise. Oddly enough, and yes I know its ridiculous, but Frangione is a doppelganger for my friend Rhonda Brown, who is also an actor. So there it is- I'm watching variations of John Cleese, Marisa Tomei and Rhonda bicker and taunt one another.

It becomes even worse as Estelle's character starts to remind me of the Femme Fatale to the point where I really do feel like I'm watching someone I know projected on that wall. The theater becomes quite warm and as the three characters proceed to tear each other apart while trying to save themselves, the play's layered strengths emerge as still resonant to a contemporary audience. Sartre's characters are loathsome, their self-justifications are weak, but there's an uncomfortable familiarity in their ugliness and plights which makes them fascinating to watch.

This is in no small part due to the brilliant video design by Thompson, who is also an award-winning film producer and filmmaker. The images on the screen are mostly head shots, and never do we see the actors full body. The effect magnifies their flaws and emotions yet creates a distance since we never see everything happening in the room. Something is always held back, making the audience wonder what is going on out of view, even though we can see what's taking place with great, often uncomfortable detail.

The result is an unexpectedly biting work that's not quite theater, though it's certainly not cinema, but resides in an uncomfortable voyeuristic place in between. The Canadian production is a joint effort from The Virtual Stage and Electric Company Theater. It's on through May 1st and it's well worth seeing.