The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
-- John Milton, Paradise Lost
In Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, the mind -- famously -- gets a little help from other people. A man and two women find themselves trapped after death in a drawing room containing three Second Empire sofas and an ugly, immovable bronze sculpture. The door is locked. The artificial light never goes out. The protagonists are unable to escape even into sleep; they cannot so much as blink.
In Sartre's philosophy, there is no God, no human essentiality, no ordained path for any of us. We create ourselves moment by moment through the choices we make. Being dead, Cradeau, Inez and Estelle have lost the ability to choose anything in a world with which they are rapidly losing touch and where their intimates are in the process of forgetting them. That's one kind of hell. But they do retain some ability to make choices. In the flat light of their drawing room, they can either console or torment each other. They choose torment.
Inez is a lesbian; Estelle is a spiteful, vacuous beauty; Cradeau's a reporter haunted by one moment of cowardice. (The play was written in 1944; the horrors of both world wars underlie the script.) He fears that this moment has undermined all of his previous acts of courage as a truth-seeking journalist. Surely, he agonizes, he's not a coward at heart. He begs Inez to re-perceive and thus redeem him. But it's too late. "You are nothing but your life," she tells him.
For Estelle, hell is the absence of admirers and of mirrors. Inez offers to be her mirror, but Estelle is uninterested in other women. That's part of Inez's hell. Cradeau, on the other hand, can hope for solace in Estelle's arms -- except that whenever he tries to kiss her, pitiless Inez stands by, jeering.
In some ways, No Exit is more literature and philosophy than theater, but it does work remarkably well on stage. The interactions among the characters keep our interest, and the dialogue (in this case, from Paul Bowles's adaptation) is not at all dated.
With this production -- and a very interesting season to follow -- the Paragon Theatre Company announces itself as a serious, artistic, professional-quality contender on the Denver scene. The production values are strong and clear, from Melissa Strasser's lighting to Jeremy Hart's costumes -- which manage to suggest the '40s without making No Exit a costume drama -- to the vertiginous lines of Austin Hein's set.
The acting is competent to excellent, although it sometimes struck me as too naturalistic. I wished for a bit more vitality -- and I'm not talking about shouting or hamminess. Barbra Andrews is a standout as Inez, fascinating to watch in her insinuating mean-spiritedness. It's hard not to feel that her character, who needs "to see people suffer," is in heaven rather than hell, but perhaps inhabiting a persona so ugly is hell in itself. ("Why, this is hell," Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles replies when Faustus asks him where hell is. "Nor am I out of it.") While Suzanne Favette's Estelle holds up her end of things, her performance is insufficiently seductive. Ted Bettridge, who plays Cradeau, has a relaxed and appealing presence but could have been more animated.
Sartre was a fierce champion of individual responsibility and not big on psychologizing, but I left the theater more absorbed by pondering the complex links between the self and others than by considering our essential aloneness. In the turbulent days of the Vietnam War, there was a popular poster that purported to describe the Vietnamese notion of hell: a banquet table, heaped with delectable food, at which guests' hands were tied to chopsticks ten feet long. Heaven was the same thing, the poster said, but there the people fed each other.
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