Sartre’s No Exit – Hell is other people!

The Electric Theater Company’s stunning production of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist play Huis Clos (No Exit) came to San Francisco, courtesy of the American Conservatory Theater. After rave reviews in Canada, the play opened to unanimous approbation at the Geary Theater. The play has been enacted much and thrice translated to film. But director Kim Collier manages to bring a unique perspective to familiar material. Three people are ushered sequentially into a hotel room by a mysterious valet. They go in to find a room bereft of any furnishings but curtains that hide a window that is bricked in, and three chairs. They must then confront each other, their own inner demons, and the burden of their misdeeds. Joseph Cradeau (Andy Thompson) is the first one in, followed by Inez Serrano (Laura Saadiq) and then Estelle Rigault (Lucia Frangione). They believe that torture instruments and real hell awaits them beyond this place, and the Valet (Jonathon Young) is a mere bell ring away!

As they first posture and plead ignorance as to why they are even here, later they start to unravel and reveal each others’ past sins, and unpleasant lives, so much so that staying in the room together seems intolerable. In this version director Collier gives us a unique voyeuristic view into the hell shared by three sinners, as a camera focused on each reveals every smirk, smile and blemish on stage on three giant screens. We see them all together, along with the Valet who is engrossed in the proceedings in the room, and often resorts to exposition using words stenciled on large cardboard pieces. The characters can still see what is happening to people they knew and places they frequented on earth, until each finally reveals his or her perfidy and closes that contact with their earthly selves. Desperate to prove she is still desirable, Estelle wants Cradeau to look at her as a woman, Cradeau simply wants some moments of respite from memories and Inez is only happy when others are unhappy! Now it is only them, trapped in a hell that is the other inmates of that room!

As they want to flee in desperation they bang on the door – but when the Valet opens the door they are even more afraid to venture out – confronted with the possibility of other hells with other people. Cradeau stays back because of Inez – because she knows what it is to be bad. As no one steps out of the room, we finally realize that hell is not fire and brimstone. It is indeed what Sartre said – It is other people!

This has to be one of the most imaginative and innovative plays that ACT has staged, and I am glad I was able to see it as it came to a close.


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