Photo by Michael Julian Berz.
The Nightwood Theatre has set up shop at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with an extraordinary production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist drama No Exit. In more traditional stage incarnations, No Exit is a fairly austere piece of theatre. Following the discussions of three strangers who find themselves trapped eternally in a sparsely decorated hotel room, Sartre’s play originally called for just three major characters, a mostly-mute valet, and one set. The drama arises from discussions between the three leads as they parse their various sins, deficiencies in character and weigh the morality of their mortal decisions.
But director Kim Collier has exploded the space of the stage, working with The Electric Company Theatre and The Virtual Stage to present a “live-cinematic interpretation” of Sartre’s original text. Instead of directly watching the three unlikely roommates—Inez (Laara Sadiq), Estelle (Lucia Frangione), and Cardeau (a wonderfully lily-livered Andy Thompson)—stew around on stage, the audience is treated to a live video of feed from cameras placed in the room, which remains otherwise unseen. As the three eventually bare themselves to the camera in a topsy-turvy version of the reality show confessional, the play’s fourth character, the hotel’s valet (played with pitch-perfect eeriness by Jonathon Young) paces around bowlegged, implicating the audience in his tenants’ terror with flashcards, pantomime, and shadowplay. While all this fourth-wall breaking may seem as old hat as existentialism itself, it only serves to elevate the play’s often terrifying ruminations on sin, guilt, and human desire. It also works to literalize Sartre’s original title, Huis Clos (roughly, “behind closed doors” or, in Latin, “In Camera”).
Some sixty-five years after Sartre penned No Exit, it’s easy to imagine a lesser production unfolding more like some snarky sketch comedy version of Sartre’s play—winking its way through absurdist set-up while ignoring all the attendant horror. While a lesser production may be hell, the Nightwood Theatre trumps staid audience expectations while remaining faithful to the author’s grim vision. Theatre purists may balk at the idea of a play unfolding mostly on screen, but rest assured that the execution far outstrips the gimmick. Combined with the solid conceptual tweaking by Collier and the collaborating companies, stellar performances by all the leads (Young’s expanded role as the valet is especially memorable) make Nightwood’s production of No Exit essential viewing for any Toronto theatre patron or armchair existentialist. Black turtlenecks and berets optional.
No Exit runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street) until November 21.