BWW Reviews: We Have Seen Hell on Earth
There are many people who believe that one need not wait for death to encounter the unbridled torture and misery of a metaphorical hell - the place to which people are sent for living a less than moral life. No, they perceive their lives as not only taking place in a world surrounded by strange faces, harsh circumstances and unfair chances being dealt out to those who deserve them least, but also as being played out with the worst possible mindset one may have. It may be said that the torture of that bad place sinners inhabit once they cross over is really to be found within the mundane world in which they live.
Yet, is this perception of hell determined by the person who must live his miserable life each day, or has his misfortune been thrust upon him by some omnipotent entity that deals harsh fates to those who may or may not deserve to live towards the achievement of their own death? Fundamentally, is living in "Hell" really a myth created by our own actions and free will, or is there a separate party responsible for the corruption and sadness faced by those met with misfortune - something other writing the rules of and controlling the game within which each of us becomes a pawn moving towards our own demise? What is the true reason people believe that their lives represent the pitiful result of an existence gone awry, essentially to the depths of Hell?
To be candid, there aren't any definite answers to such questions, as humanity cannot be treated as a generality; opinions vary and different theories exist as to why each of us is here and how our lives are to be perceived and therefore lived. Although, Jean-Paul Sartre's magnificent play No Exit deals with a very specific group of beings who understand the magnitude of their situation too late in this "game" some higher power is playing on behalf of their sanity and fundamental ability to live as human beings. What is so wonderful about the concept of Sartre's play is not only its focus on Existentialist thought and theory, but also because the cruelty faced by each character led into one of the many rooms which constitute this version of "Hell" is only a side effect of the lives they were already living, just handed over to someone (or something) that could actually punish them for their misdeeds while amongst the living. Three characters wind up in Hell with their limbs attached, clothes still starched and in place and, most importantly, their stellar personalities as evident as ever; basically, the same people who died no more than a week or two ago are the same people whom the audience must look upon and watch deal with the cards now being dealt to them.
Strange, though: Why, if they are in possession of everything they had whilst alive, thus making the two versions of themselves deviate very little from one another, do their lives only now become hell while on Earth they seemed to have no issue living with themselves? Is the mere concept of "Hell" enough to bring a person down to the depths of a person who actually believes in the existence of something greater in the world than the mere presence and actions of the people who inhabit it? That is what makes No Exit so beautiful, in a very Existentialist sort of way: there are people who make choices and will themselves to become a certain kind of person; it is only when they see the error of their ways and confront the cowards that they are do they see the lack of humanity within them.
Sartre's No Exit is exactly about that: people who were once masters of their own universe now being forced to see the lives they once lived through the eyes of other people - strangers to boot - and discover that those same lives they led while alive have accompanied them into the depth of Hell. It really isn't so bad in this place that, as Cradeau Garcin makes clear towards the play's start, is meant to have devices of torture around every turn and the torturer ready and relentless in his quest to make the dead suffer.
What is so ironic here, though, is that the ability to see themselves for what they really are - essentially now being on the outside looking in - makes each character less human than how he or she was when first walking through the doors of the room eternity will be spent in. Introducing humanity into the lives of people who were without it for their entire existence actually makes Cradeau, Inez and Estelle worse because of the chunk of confidence reflecting on their own lives that disappears as they do so. In a way, having eternity to ponder why each will forever be in Hell is absolutely great as juxtaposed to a lifetime of fire, torture and pain. Why is it, then, that having nothing but their own lives to think about their lives that have ended in one sense and were never really disrupted in another makes for such an exciting and thought provoking play? Honestly, people are forced to face their own humanity, and it applies to every person who goes to see this production of No Exit by the Pearl Theatre Company.
In its first Off-Broadway production in over fifteen years, director Linda Ames Key brings Sartre's infamous play, adapted from the French by Paul Bowles, back to the stage for a month long engagement at the Pearl Theatre of 42nd Street. For a play that is so complex in its structure and message, there is really very little to say about this particular performance, other than that it was brilliant. There is so much beauty and wonder to be found in the characters of Cradeau Garcin (played by Bradford Cover), Inez (Jolly Abraham) and Estelle (Sameerah Luqmann-Harris), and each of the actors on that stage brought his or her respected person to life; even the Valet (Pete McElligott), who essentially takes lives away, is a vibrant and mysterious character. These four individuals create what is known as No Exit, written by Sartre in 1944 and guaranteed to remain a most timeless and brilliant dramatic work. The play tells of three people who wind up within one room together, in a most peculiar and unfamiliar version of Hell that cannot be comprehended as being so; this is until they begin to suspect why the three of them were placed in this particular room.
Cradeau, Inez and Estelle are all quite different, and upon meeting even seem bothered by the others' presence. As they each relate the account of how he or she died (deaths all considerably gruesome yet deserved in relation to the lives each had lived), the audience soon begins to understand not only why these three are where they are at this present moment, but also how this idea of "Hell" is contouring itself to the unique experiences of these characters. For example, as Cradeau becomes disgusted with himself for running away as a coward would during times of war, he is further convinced by Inez that Estelle could never see anything in him because of his cowardly nature. Estelle is convinced that the baby she threw over the balcony and into the water is not a good reason for her to wind up in Hell - or so she says. This play demonstrates how each person is the other's demise - that no matter how badly an individual seeks self-worth and pleasure in his or her life, there will always be another to say something contrary to the "truth" the other wishes to hear; this, Sartre says, is the definition of Hell. In the words of Cradeau himself towards the play's end, "Hell...is just other people," and the journey these characters take to discover this little bit of truth is both exciting and excruciating.
The Pearl Theatre Company's production of Sartre's play is pretty damn good. It is interesting how there are so many different ways that cast and crew can play around with elements of costume, set and time period; as the play is really about the human condition, so many different choices can be made in these respects. The play was written in the 1940's, and the design elements reflect this as such. The set itself is amazing, as the opening and closing of the doors on stage provide much of the action, even though they rarely move to let people either in or out. The rest of the set is simple yet effective, as there is nothing on stage that ultimately goes unused. The actors who navigate the stage throughout the entire show are fantastic. Mr. Cover so easily shows the audience that he is angered, and then suddenly releases that anger with such force that it is a wonder how the person he is yelling at doesn't get the message the first time. Ms. Abraham works hard to attract her new female acquaintance while trying to ward off Cradeau and his interest in Estelle; she really is great at switching between the two personalities, per se. Finally, Ms. Luqmann-Harris has quite a few transitions with her character, from proper lady to child murderer and then temptress, she navigates her way through the show with grace and ease. From the acting to the production elements themselves, the show is fantastic, and really leaves you with much opportunity and will to think about what you just saw on the train ride home.
No Exit began performances at The Pearl Theatre Company, located at 555 West 42nd Street, on February 25th, ad will continue thru March 30th, The show opened on March 9th, As part of the company's thirtieth anniversary season, the show is performed as follows: Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. and Thursday thru Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65 (general), $39 for seniors and $20 for students as made available by rush; there is also a $20 Thursday rush. Tickets may be purchased via the theatre's website, pearltheatre.org, or by calling (212).563.9261. No Exit run approximately 90 minutes without an intermission.
Please go see and enjoy this show!
Photo Credit: Al Foote III