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Tucson Weekly Hell In A Handbasket

Existential Angst Just Ain't What It Used To Be.

By Dave Irwin

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  JEAN PAUL SARTRE'S No Exit has always been an important work for
demonstrating key points of existential philosophy. However, no one, unless dressed all in black including turtleneck and beret, has ever claimed that watching this excruciating drama about three strangers doomed to spend eternity psychologically torturing each other is entertainment. Important, yes, but not entertaining.

Quintessential Productions' version of Sartre's classic is not terribly successful in making an evening in Hell any more enjoyable than it sounds. The production is more of interest for its historical value than any particular insights that director Dylan Smith and his cast bring.

First produced in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944, the play involves three characters damned to the same windowless room together, where there's no sleep and the lights never go off. And to make matters worse, the place is badly decorated. Sartre's inventive version of Hades is self-serve: Instead of Beelzebub tormenting you, three roommates take to the task, each in turn irritating and aggravating the other two. For relief, they conspire with one or the other; but when you're going to be stuck together for all eternity, that strategy has some downside in the long run.

The bright spot of this production was Taren Carter Hines as Inez, a dead clerk with distinct lesbian overtones. Hines finds the right balance, alternating between calculated cruelty and bored resignation. Her delivery was natural and believable, with her subtle seductive overtures and her surrender to indeed deserving this particular form of punishment. Brian Kearney was less convincing as Garcin, an executed cowardly journalist, claiming to be a pacifist. On opening night, his gestures were self-conscious and overly mannered, leaving a clear sense that we were seeing the actor and not the character. Laura Ann Herman was more at ease but still slightly self-conscious in the character of Estelle, a vain woman who married for money and died of pneumonia. Jon Campbell rounded out the cast, in the brief supportive role of the valet who brings each to the room and explains the rules.

Smith's directing generally moved the characters around nicely, especially given their static setting. The lighting left dark edges on the set which the characters sometimes moved in and out of, seemingly without relevance to the dialogue. An occasional dimming of the lights to add emphasis to the text was more distracting than enhancing. Smith presents a straightforward version of the play that, while not bad, does nothing to lift the grim material into something more transcendental.

It's admirable that Quintessential Productions is staking out a territory of doing important works less often brought to the boards. Unfortunately in our post-Pop and post-modernist world, No Exit seems dated and almost quaint, as passé as actually referring to oneself as an intellectual. The lessons of existentialism--such as the role of personal responsibility, the bleak position of mankind in the universe, and the fact that being stuck with boorish people is the worst punishment ever conceived--are no longer revelations. What was avant garde a half-century ago has since been assimilated by the mainstream. Except to be able to say, "Been there, done that," after this 90-minute visit, most folks have better things to do than go to Hell this time around.


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