‘Hell is Other People’
Off the Wall’s elegant treatment of Sartre
Off the Wall Theatre’s production of No Exit is elegant and spare. Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist masterpiece about three psyches in hell gets a sensitive, no-frills treatment from this company which often produces unusual adaptations and edgy, little-known works. Sartre’s darkness and strangeness are, apparently, sufficient in themselves.
Strong production choices in Dale Gutzman’s rendition include a “Dexter”-esque set draped entirely in plastic sheeting, lending the environs an ambiance at once spectral and clinical. In his director’s notes, Gutzman queries, “Is Hell the loss of identity…even a false identity we have created to protect ourselves?” His sterile, rustling set certainly evokes this impersonality. The sheeting is put to another good use during scenes in which the three principals look in on the world of the living. Gutzman arranges for baths of colored light to cast silhouettes against the plastic, showing us what each character sees without allowing it to be more real than the hell in front of us.
Sound design is likewise brilliant. Inez’ cello theme is particularly troubling and lovely and the horror-scape created when the three damned souls finally force their way through the door of their room and look out into the corridor beyond is bone chilling. These are the moments where Gutzman brilliantly conveys that hell itself is a nuanced and personally motivated character in the story.
Fearless and well-differentiated performances come from each of the actors. James Strange’s Doorman is casually surly and perfectly ominous as the valet of the netherworld. His ongoing cigarette stage business with Cradeau is one of the production’s moments of sparkling humor. As Estelle, a beautiful young woman whose vanity knows no bounds and defines her identity, Zoe Schwartz gives a modernized treatment, her exasperation and glibness at times more 21st century than 1940s. This update works well and demonstrates how the character type translates across the decades. Alicia Rice’s Inez is appropriately poised and predatory. The character self-describes as malicious, saying “I must see other people suffer to know I exist.” Rice plays the tigress with aplomb. Patrick McCann’s Cradeau, a wartime journalist and serial womanizer, says he tortured his wife with blatant infidelity simply because “it was easy.” McCann skillfully portrays the manic narcissist angling for affirmation that he cannot give himself and unrelentingly placing his professional reputation and legacy before other people’s needs.
Sartre’s understanding of human frailty, the psychological horror of triangulation between three self-serving individuals and the meta question of what, if anything, can be done in an existence of uncertain identity and meaning all make this play worth seeing. Off the Wall’s brilliant, understated treatment brings the work to the level of a joy to watch.
Through Aug. 21 at Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-484-8874 or visit offthewalltheatre.com.