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HELL ON STAGE: The cast of Theatre Intime's No Exit (left to right: Christian Burset, Crystal Scialla, Ronnie Penoi, Rob Rich) smile for the camera. Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 existential drama, which portrays the hell of spending an eternity in a single room with two other people, is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

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Three Sophisticated Sadists Torture Each Other for Eternity In Sartre's 1944 "No Exit," Existential Hell on Intime Stage

Donald Gilpin

It has many of the trappings of a typical drawing room comedy. A man and two women arrive one by one and find themselves in a room together. The characters are familiar types, as each particular case gradually reveals itself and relationships begin to develop among the three. The setting too, with its distinct tackiness – bright yellow easy chair stage right, electric blue plastic sofa center, red office chair stage left, lime green wallpaper – is more or less recognizable.

Before long, however, both audience and characters realize that this room is a vision of hell. A certain unsettling strangeness begins to encroach on the familiar. This is not "the torture chamber, the fire and brimstone, the burning marl." There's no need here for a satanic torturer. These three "normal" characters prove fully capable of creating a complete hell for each other. And though the setting is indeed the after-life, Jean-Paul Sartre's image of hell here turns out to be a metaphor for life on earth where suffering individuals depend on each other for self-definition, self-understanding.

Currently playing at Theatre Intime on the Princeton University campus, Sartre's No Exit was first staged in May 1944 in Nazi-occupied Paris shortly before the liberation at the end of World War II. The original French title, Huis Clos, is actually a legal term, referring to a hearing closed to the public, and indeed what happens here is a kind of judging, in the intimacy of this room populated by only three individuals.

No Exit portrays the dilemma of existentialism, a philosophy popularized by Sartre. Humans have freedom of choice, but each individual must take full responsibility for his existence. Thus, human beings are defined entirely by their own actions, and any ideals they may try to live up to will only lead them to "inauthenticity" and "bad faith."

Sartre's characters here reflect back on their lives, seeking validation from each other in struggling to make sense of themselves and the lives they have recently left.

With Hysteria (portraying Sigmund Freud's moral crises in the closing days of his life) and The Laramie Project (a documentary drama on the murder of Matthew Shepard) both in the past six weeks, Theatre Intime has not shied away from serious, thought-provoking drama this fall. No Exit, under the direction of Princeton University junior Melissa Galvez, continues in this serious, intellectually and emotionally demanding spirit. In addition to being a major philosophical landmark and a devastating commentary on the tenor of the times in Nazi-occupied France, No Exit is a masterpiece and Sartre's most popular play.

Ms. Galvez and her young, capable undergraduate cast make sure that the philosophical and moral complexities acquire vibrant life in the three main characters and their volatile relationships. A steeply raked stage with eerie light coming up through the floorboards has the effect of appearing to put the actors a bit off balance and pushing them out towards the audience. The production is energetic and physical, and the actors gamely engage each other and the audience from start to finish of the hour and forty-five minute single act.

All three main characters – Garcin (Christian Burset), Inez (Ronnie Penoi) and Estelle (Crystal Scialla) – know why they have been consigned to hell, but before finally being led to confess, each lies and avoids the truth. They all need the others to create illusions about themselves and their lives, and they are all destined to suffer in deprivation and deception.

Garcin's crime was infidelity and mistreatment of his long-suffering wife, but he is plagued by fears that he lived the life of a coward and will be remembered as such. He craves the affirmation of Estelle, who cares not at all about his character, and Inez, who unequivocally judges him as a coward.

Inez, aggressive and sadistic, is a lesbian who tries to seduce Estelle and make her hate Garcin. Inez admits that she "can't get along without making other people suffer." The stylish Estelle, desperate for a mirror in this mirrorless hell, is an adulteress and murderer. She makes advances on Garcin, torturing Inez in the process, but those advances are meaningless and unfulfilled. Garcin tries to remain aloof, proposing they minimize the torture by "trying to forget that others are there," but he is repeatedly drawn back into the conflict by Inez's attacks and Estelle's advances.

Estelle, the character of least substance, may be the most challenging to play, but Ms. Scialla is superb, consistently credible in creating the façade of the innocent young socialite, while showing rich nuance and shadings of character in her reactions to her two fellow torturers. Ms. Penoi's Inez, the most impulsive and hot-blooded element in the drama, provides a strong, focused foil to Estelle and a constant goad for Garcin. The youthful Mr. Christian, though mostly poised and articulate, is less convincing than his female counterparts – not always credible, especially in the amorous scenes with Estelle, in making the character stretch to play the duplicitous man-of-the-world Garcin. Rob Rich lends solid support as the valet, who escorts each member of the trio to this room.

Set design by Rebecca Simson, lighting by Elizabeth Berg and sound effects by Daniel Iglesia all contribute dramatically to the impact of this vision of hell, and Marie Reynaud's costumes are on target in helping to delineate the distinct natures of the characters.

Ms. Galvez has directed with skill, intelligence and understanding, as she keeps the drama moving and, despite a couple of problems with sightlines, she and her actors effectively transform considerable weighty emotional and intellectual content into dynamic physical action. As Garcin observes, "We're linked together inextricably," like a spider web or perhaps like a string trio. And sixty years later, Sartre's portrait of hell continues to offer us the challenge to know ourselves and to take full responsibility for our existence.

Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit runs through November 15, with performances Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call (609) 258-1742 for further information.

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