Sartre’s one act play ‘No Exit’ is currently running at the A.C.T. Theater in San Francisco. I had first read the play over ten years ago so, I opted to re-read the text before seeing the current production. Having read the text allowed me to fully appreciate the unique production billed at the A.C.T. that used cameras and projection to cinematize the theater-going experience.
The plot of ‘No Exit’ centers around three characters, a man and two women, who have recently become “absent” from Earthly life and discover that in the hell of their afterlife these three individuals who were strangers while living must now spend their eternity together in a single room outfitted with only three chairs, a statue, and themselves. Upon being escorted into this room with no exit, each character expects torture, fire, and brimstone, but finds that their true torture lies in their own guilt and the judgment they pass upon each other as they discuss and discover the faults of their former lives. The central theme of ‘No Exit’ is best surmised in the male character, Garcin’s proclamation that “Hell is – other people.”
The A.C.T production provides a vividly intense portrayal of the emotional turmoil that the three damned characters must experience for eternity. What was truly unique about the production was that for the bulk of the show the characters were inside a cell that we, the audience, could only view from the projection of three separate screens. Each screen allowed a focused portrayal of each character and there were multiple camera angles providing close ups, above head perspectives, and wide-screen perspective. The camera views heightened the actor’s portrayal of the isolation, fear, and despair experienced by the characters.
Also unique to the production was the development of the valet character, who in the text is a minor role that only escorts the players into the room at the beginning of the one act play. In Kim Collier’s A.C.T. production the valet acted as the audience’s escort to the action ongoing within the cell. As he remained on stage for the entire show the valet was given additional lines not in Sartre’s text and he also communicated with the audience using text written on cue cards. Having read the play that day, I found this addition to be a little annoying; the valet was often involved in pantomime and activities that did not add to the content of the Sartre’s themes and was distracting from the dialogue ongoing within the cell. However, I recognize that this addition was necessary to provide a theatrical connection to an onstage production that was largely performed in a box observable only via camera projections.
The content and performance of ‘No Exit’ is cerebral, macabre, and powerful, however upon exiting the show I was glad to return to the reality of my life in which other people are not an eternal hell.