"…being roasted on the spit, sulpher and brimstone. What a laugh! As if they needed it! Hell is other people." Jean-Paul Sartre
You wouldn't think that an existentialist play with three people who emotionally torture each other for an hour and a half would be so enjoyable, but Imago Theater's production of No Exit manages to find the playfulness and absurdity buried beneath the surface of Jean-Paul Sartre's famous play. Staged on a floating, tilting square, Imago's No Exit is a dynamic and constantly moving production.
Imago's No Exit stage pitches and moves under the weight and movement of the actors. This tilting and movement becomes more angular and dramatic as more actors are added to the mix. Using such a strong device to present the play, Imago ran the risk of having No Exit be a one trick pony. Through the first part of the play the novelty of the tilting stage does generate strong excitement, which tapers off as the play settles in. This transition point is handled extremely well and the staging transforms from a novelty into an essential character in the show. I loved how the moving stage changes the audience's physical perspective on the show; at times, actors seem to float in the air in front of us, and at others they seem to be falling away into the darkness.
Director and set designer Jerry Mouawad seems to be constantly playing with the arrangement of the actors on stage, using that constantly shifting dynamic to enhance the tension and create drama. Mouawad does a fantastic job of coordinating the actors' positioning, lighting and Sartre's text into a piece that far exceeds anything that could be done on a conventional stage. Mouawad also seems to realize how important it is not to rely simply on the technical device of the teetering stage for the success of the show, so he injects a nice undercurrent of humor to balance things out.
Much of the humor in Imago's production of No Exit is generated by Bryce Flint-Somerville who plays the role of the Valet. Bryce's performance of the Valet is a blend of Dr. Daamen Caligari from the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Jim Carrey. It's a delicious mix of near-comic insanity which starts the play off on a fantastic note and carries it through the first half.
Bryce's intensity and humor is well balanced by Tim True who plays Garcin, a pacifist writer who is at constant odds with the world and his sense of self. Tim True plays Garcin in near opposite to Bryce as he constantly draws his energy and intensity inwards rather than playing everything out in exageration. True is excellent throughout the production even though he seemed to stumble with his lines a few times throughout the evening. I'll give True the benefit of the doubt here as I saw the production on opening night. I'm sure as he settles into the run these stumbles will vanish and he'll be left with a simply exceptional performance.
Adding a much different kind of intensity is JoAnn Johnson, who plays Inez, an aging, lusting lesbian postal worker who has a flair for the dramatic. "I'm a bitch" exclaims Inez, and Johnson seems to enjoy every last morsel of playing that. At times it felt like Johnson was channeling Gloria Swanson, using her physicality to communicate in dramatic fashion as much as her words. Towards the end of the show Johnson injects something into a very serious moment that is so unexpected and disarming I had a hard time containing my laughter.
Maureen Porter rounds out this excellent cast playing a fantastically alive Estelle, a woman who lived to be desired and persued by men. Porter is captivating and when she performs her key monologue you simply can't take your eyes off her. Unfortunately Porter's performance is handicapped by an absolutely horrid blond wig that she wears through out the show. It's Halloween bad and it greatly distracts and detracts from the performance. It may seem petty, but it sticks out so accutely and is really my only gripe with an otherwise fantastic production.
In other hands Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit might be a tough piece to get through. Loose in its narrative structure, extremely morose and tightly confined in a single space, a performance of No Exit runs the risk of making you feel utterly trapped and miserable. There is no schadenfreude in watching three people emotionally torture each other, but Jerry Mouawad and the Imago Theater company have found something immensely entertaining and even absurdly enjoyable within this play. Through its innovative staging and deliciously performed characters, Imago has created a fantastic piece of theater that is extremely enjoyable and absolutely worth seeing.
Imago Theater's No Exit runs October 15th – November 15th [Thursday @ 7:00 ($28); Friday @ 7:30 ($33); Sat @ 2:00 ($33) & 7:30 ($39); Sunday @ 2:00 ($28) Youth/Senior tickets are $3 less.] The theater is located at 17 SE 8th Ave (just south of Burnside).
For more information on Imago Theater's No Exit: