Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
Most people have heard, in one form or another, that hell is other people. But to see the aphorism uttered in its earliest iteration as in a new translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, now onstage with Quintessence Theatre Group, is to witness the full shades of meaning within. Sartre’s existentialist vision of hell isn’t simply predicated on irritable bunkmates but on the premise that true damnation is an eternity of being known, of being trapped forever within the perception of another.
This new version, translated and directed by Quintessence artistic director Alex Burns, is a welcome reminder that Sartre’s philosophy is never more effective than when seen on a stage. The canvas here teems with inventive staging and larger-than-life performances, drawing us into the bleak geometry of its vision. Three souls are trapped in a room, waiting for their punishment to start, and slowly it dawns on them what the audience has long known: their torment has already begun.
The effectiveness of this hell is primarily owed to the play’s traverse staging (also designed by Burns), a setup in which the audience is seated on either side of the stage, each section facing the other. It’s an uncommon arrangement, mostly because of its logistical difficulty but also because of its innate limitation. Actors cannot ever turn away from the audience, yet they are also denied the freedom of a theater in the round. The set seems reduced to a linear dimensionality, the characters as constrained as points on a line, radiating an intense claustrophobia. In short, it’s the perfect ecosystem in which to observe Sartre’s three damned specimens.
Joseph Garcin (J. Hernandez) is first to arrive, a cowardly journalist who flees rather than fight in his country’s war. He puts on a sardonic mask, trying to sidestep the pain of his legacy, but cannot fully conceal his discomfort in knowing how he’ll be remembered. Garcin is soon joined by Inez (Melody Ladd), a postal clerk, and Estelle (Aneesa Neibauer), a high-society woman, both of whom wear similar facades in futile attempts to avoid their profound suffering. Estelle wanders about with a doe-eyed gaze, alternatively innocent and seductive, as if she had merely found herself lost in the woods. Inez, meanwhile, wields herself like a knife, cutting through the stage with an acrid resolve that only grows with each passing moment. In a very well-acted production, hers is the breakout performance: a countenance so twisted that it seems to finally find its proper station in hell.
As their defense mechanisms crumble, the actors are well-supported by Burns’s robust translation of Sartre’s script. It’s more a polish than a reimagining, and at first surprising that it doesn’t attempt to modernize the play to any degree (a story with such universal themes seems like it would be ripe for a 21st-century update). It becomes clear, though, that part of the aim of this particular translation is to retain the period in which it was conceived, preserved from the occasionally operatic dialogue to the midcentury drawing-room set lined with three colored chaises. Burns seems to want to render the scene exactly as Sartre would have envisioned it.
This depiction is hindered, though, by some questionable technical choices. Throughout the play, we see twin projections of a live black-and-white video feed of the actors at a high angle, evocative of security camera footage. Given the presence of the audience, it comes across as an unnecessary method of showing that the characters are constantly being watched. The video is also strangely inconsistent, turning off and on with no apparent rhyme or reason, so it tends to distract from the performances rather than drawing us closer in. The music, too, feels like a half-choice. An occasional thrum is set beneath monologues, but it is deployed too imprecisely to resonate.
Even with these dubious elements, however, the play in the end conveys a vision of hell that is as terrible as it ever was. Sartre’s existentialist subversion of the afterlife is presented with such starkness that it is easy to see how it earned its place in the cultural consciousness, a fable so resonant that it is hard to believe it’s almost a century old. Its hell feels, after all, like it has been with us for so much longer, exploiting a fear that must have existed well before Sartre’s time—a hell that is eerily close to life itself.
What, When, Where
No Exit. By Jean-Paul Sartre, in a translation by Alex Burns; directed by Burns. $15-$60. Through October 28, 2023, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Seating accommodations can be requested at the time of purchase both in person and online.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.