Creepy setting lends an eerie intimacy to DTC's 'No Exit'
For all those who attended one of the Displaced Theater Company's performances of Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit" this weekend, there was, quite literally, no exit. The audience members were warned upon arrival that there would be no leaving whatsoever during the show, a warning that eventually seemed futile given the frightening, riveting intensity of the performance.
Having strolled up the dirt driveway, the play's attendees were greeted on Panarchy's front porch by Sarah Hughes '07 and Daniella Sloane '10, director and "stage help" respectively. Glowing votive candles, a trap door and a steep set of stairs led into the altogether eerie basement, where audience members walked through a door held open by a strangely stoic, tuxedo-clad Nathan Pinsley '07 (the Valet), and found seats on the stone benches bolted around the perimeter of the wall.
"When I realized this year that, as President of DTC, I could do pretty much anything, I decided it was high time for me to put on the play I've been wanting to direct since I translated it terribly from French during high school. So I found the creepiest place on campus, enlisted my most talented (aka crazy) friends, and set to work rehearsing an existentialist nightmare," Hughes explained in the Director's Note.
Panarchy's infamous "tomb room" was absolutely creepy, with its tombstone chairs, pulsing "Law and Order"-esque music and abrasive lighting. Three tattered, overstuffed armchairs and a desk with a large bronze block constituted the setting for the duration of the one-act play.
Occasionally, theater in an unusual locale can feel forced, the setting a mere novelty that does little to enhance the experience. In this case, however, the actors beautifully utilized the dimensions of the limited area. They successfully managed the difficulty of having to perform in the round, occasionally coming so close as to infringe upon the personal space of unsuspecting viewers. Sitting in the confined room in such close proximity to the actors, it felt as if you were not just an observer of the action, but actually trapped in the play's diegetic setting.
And it's a good thing Hughes has some crazy (talented) friends, as Sartre provides plenty of fodder for crazy (talented) antics. "No Exit" finds three complete strangers placed together in a room that is to be their hell for all eternity.
"Two is company, three's a crowd," as the old adage goes, and in "No Exit" we watch Garcin (Peter Rothbard '09), Inez (Rachel Karpf '07), and Estelle (Sarah Overton '07) manipulate each other, driving each other mad until Inez finally spits out the play's ultimate, immortal declaration: "Hell is other people."
While for Sartre's damned it may have been hell being locked in that drawing room forever, their pain was as entertaining and dramatic as an episode of reality television. There is something delightfully, guiltily voyeuristic about watching people unravel one another, and the sinister, intimate space and convincing, effusive acting made it particularly satisfying.
Also satisfying was watching the reactions of other audience members. Because of the nature of the seating arrangement, the audience found themselves face to face not only with the actors, but with each other. The ability to see other people's horrified amusement at what was unfolding before their eyes added an extra dimension of entertainment and interactivity.
Everyone began squirming as soon as Pinsley's "Valet," a kind of devil's minion, arrived onstage. Smirking and deliciously creepy, his eyelids seemed never to move as he successfully made the characters and audience alike cringe. Rothbard was convincing as the "well-beloved brute" Garcin, his shirt peppered with realistically bloody bullet holes, his eyes glinting with determination. The women too were dynamic and effective -- Karpf's "Inez" was abrasive and jealous; Overton's "Estelle" lovely-voiced and vain. The actors clearly took pleasure in tormenting each other, and their energy enlivened the audience, who, by the performance's end, was cackling at Sartre's grotesque wit and the actors' apt characterizations.
This performance truly depicted, as Garcin says in the play, "life without a break." And what a perversly enjoyable depiction it was, to the extent that Hughes had to add an extra performance on Sunday night due to high demand.