Imagine being in a room with three couches where there are no windows or mirrors, the sole door is locked, and you cannot sleep nor cry. Sound like hell? This drawing room backdrop is where Jean-Paul Sartre sets his 1944 existentialist play No Exit, in which three characters grapple with his or her arrival into the afterlife.
Through long bouts of dialogue over the course of one act, we learn about the insecurities of the recently-deceased Garcin (Josh Mullett-Sadones), Inez (Hannah Nicholas), and Estelle (Laura Chaitow), with brief appearances by the Valet (Joseph Hartshorn). We experience contrasting volumes when the characters get into screaming matches but also spend extensive time sitting silently on their separate couches, and we see the characters both annoy each other and attempt to grow closer, in something resembling an isosceles love triangle (i.e. one woman is attracted to the other, who is drawn to the man, who likes neither woman). Overall, these actors successfully bring their characters to life (or should I say afterlife?), dressing, moving, and speaking in the way you would imagine for a guilty journalist, a hostile postal clerk, and vain adulteress.
I enjoyed the novel interpretation that Michael Speight and Cheryl Birdseye brought to the opening and in the venue choice. At first, I wondered what we were meant to get out of watching the Valet fluffing pillows for several minutes, but as soon as I recognized the musical accompaniment (the Edith Piaf recording of “Non, je ne regrette rien”) it made for a cruel but witty juxtaposition to have a song about not regretting your past as the prologue to this French play, in which the characters contend with their trespasses on earth. Moreover, I have not seen a theatrical production take place in a church since perhaps, a nativity play in the 90s at our local parish. It seems that setting this adaptation of No Exit in the New Road Baptist Church was not a matter of convenience but a clever undertaking. As audience members trickled in, we exchanged glances as to why we were all so high up in the balconies - but partway through it struck me that we were all literally looking down into hell, from our ‘earthly’ perspective. Also, the modern cross wrapped with thorns (part of the church, not a prop) loomed over the set as a reminder of sin, judgement, and forgiveness. In a stroke of bad and good luck, there was an audible choir practice next door, which was a bit distracting but amusing in how ‘heavenly voices’ spilled over into hell as a distant reminder of what could have been, had they behaved better on earth.
At times, it was evident that they were working out kinks during the first showing. The crew was still assembling parts of the set as we arrived, and there were two noticeable points where lines were forgotten. Also, there were some points I remember from reading the play in high school (e.g. the ringing bell, the door opening, the paper knife) that were excluded from this show - I am not sure if these parts were accidentally or purposefully omitted. It’s also possible that I missed some lines, as it was hard to hear the characters in the U-shape venue when they were facing away, and the echoing acoustics did not help. Another inconvenient factor was that the balcony was positioned such that not every audience member could view all the characters without leaning uncomfortably forward. Further, one incongruence between the script and the venue was Estelle’s complaint of the gloomy room, while they are surrounded by bright lights and white sheets - perhaps swapping in darker sheets could be a quick fix in future performances. The church setting was appropriately symbolic but made it difficult to execute in a way that was entirely enjoyable for the spectators.
If you would like to tackle questions of morality and judgement this week, No Exit is being performed Tuesday through Saturday night at the New Road Baptist Church.