Stage & Dance

Review: 'No Exit' is hellish, and that's a good thing

Balagula Theatre's latest production is an evening spent in hell.

The expanding troupe, now in its first full-length season of plays, continues its exploration of existential drama with No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. When it premiered at the end of World War II, No Exit quickly became a 20th-century classic in philosophy and theater circles, becoming famous for spreading Sartre's maxim that hell is other people.

Hell is indeed other people, in the central theme and in the apparatus of No Exit. The play centers on three characters who arrive in hell's reception area, a kind of lobby for the damned, and discover that their punishment for sins in life is one another. Each character's flaws and weaknesses collide with the others' until everyone's full anguish is exposed.

No Exit has enjoyed countless runs at theaters around the world since its inception, and it has inspired more than one feature film, but this production's director, Ryan Case, looks directly to the playwright for inspiration. The directorial vision that Case espouses in the program notes focuses on the relationship between the author and the characters as a means to explore Sartre's philosophies. Case calls his vision "a highly individualized exploration of it (Sartre's philosophy) through internalizing of the author's point of view."

Case's lofty vision does not always translate in an obvious way, but its work beneath the surface is stirring. The audience might not leave the theater pondering Sartre's relationship to his characters and how they mirror his relationship to God, but they probably will leave feeling thoughtful, haunted and human.

A hallmark of this show is intimate, individual performances by the ensemble. The development of actors, and involving them in the creative legwork, is one of Balagula's key missions, and this show is no exception. Adam Luckey is pensive, subdued and brooding as Monsier Cradeau, who has earned his ticket to hell by abusing women and being a coward in war. Hayley Williams is hyper-feminine and seductively manipulative as Estelle, the spoiled socialite who threw an unwanted baby onto rocks at the sea. Robbie Morgan plays Inez, a lesbian who is in hell for turning her lover against her former husband.

It took a few minutes for the Sunday's opening-night audience and actors to warm up to hell, but once they found their groove, the cast quickly found its footing and, like the characters in the play, began to work on one another. Playing against his usual character type, Luckey's Cradeau seems troubled, distracted, full of an understated urgency. Williams, on the other hand, puts her character's neuroses right out there. Everyone knows she will flirt and manipulate through her insecurities, which not even hell can extinguish.

Then there is Morgan as Inez. Embittered but relatable, cruel but understanding, Inez is tortured by Estelle's beauty, and this torture is her penance in hell. She alone seems to understand the full effect of her actions on earth and her fate in the afterlife.

In addition to intimate performances, Natasha Williams' set design includes a nice treat late in the play. The door to hell opens, and it is scary and disturbing. Kudos to sound designer Kamilla Olsen for a wicked mix of mangled voices competing to be heard in hell.

On the heels of earlier existential works, No Exit is another solid and thought-provoking installment in Balagula's themed season.