I want to start this review by saying that I am not actually a fan of the existentialist manifesto that is Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. I have always felt it to be a weird, disjointed combination of Waiting for Godot and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It only vaguely works in its attempt to give the audience anything other than three self-serving people who truly do belong in Hell.
So I consider it very worthy praise to say that I found Noisy Nest’s current immersive production of No Exit to be entertaining and engrossing. From start to finish, I was caught by the simple way the audience was placed within the space and the wonderful spatial dynamics created between location, set pieces, actors and audience.
As always, I want to let audiences discover the true excitement of the production when they experience it. So without giving too much away, this version of No Exit begins with the premise that everyone – audience and actors alike – are all new residents of Hell. We even begin our experience with having a photographic picture taken (because, one assumes, Hell has even worse levels of bureaucracy than normal existence).
More importantly, we are offered the chance to choose our own room key. But this choice – like many of the ones presented in the play to the actors – is a choice we have to make without any effective knowledge. We are forced to take fate into our own hands but have no way to know which option might be better.
Then the experience begins in earnest and we immediately realize that nothing we thought we knew has any relevance at all. And that puts us, the audience, in the exact same space the characters begin in at the top of the play. It’s a very smart choice that works far better than I would have expected it to work if someone had just told me what happened.
That statement could be made about much of the immersive choices here. What should have been window dressing instead turns out to be deeply impacting to the audience. I often found myself as caught up in how the audience was reacting to their predicament as I was in how the characters responded. And since the experience made it nearly impossible to watch both at the same time, I found a deep tension in how I switched from one focus to another.
That tension was even greater because the actors are all quite good in their roles. James Tyler Johnson’s sexually predatory nature consistently walks the fine line between alluring and dangerous. Jessica Graham’s portrayal of Inez has such a nasty streak to her that I actually found it hard to watch her and nearly recoiled when she happened to curl up next to my chair. These comments are both compliments, by the way – that’s exactly what Inez is supposed to draw out.
Verona Blue generates an opening and closing to the production that is perfectly eerie and unsettling. And Christine Donlon’s embodiment of Estelle reminded me exactly why I find women like this character so impossible to handle. She manipulates the characters with ease, as she should. But I also saw her drawing the same sort of fascination from audience members as well. When an actor can tilt her head and you see half a dozen audience members do the same in subconscious imitation, you have really seen something.
In many ways the greatest compliment here has to go to director Amanda Bird. No Exit is one of those plays that is so revered that it’s practically impossible to present in any way that doesn’t feel cliché. This production avoids all of those pitfalls and instead offered me a new way of looking at the ideas presented within it. Through a very simple and yet very clear stage design, audience members find themselves in a scenario where multiple options can occur at their choice. The performance can be watched in total or split into multiple pieces or ignored completely in whatever combination the audience wishes. Multiple times I found myself effectively creating a movie version of the performance as I framed characters in specific combinations and ‘edited’ what I was seeing in the way that I wished to see it at the time.
Rereading that last sentence, I realize that I’m once again speaking around the actual production. I’m skirting the words that would make what I liked most very clear – but in the same process I’d give everything away. I don’t want to do that here.
Instead, the best gift I can give someone reading this review is to simply say that this experience is one that cannot be described correctly. You need to actually go through the process yourself. Perhaps you will then understand my coy phrases. Perhaps you will hate the entire experience.
That’s the point. No one ever said Hell would be easy. Or nice. Or fun.
But this time, it is a Hell with other people. And you won’t be able to ignore them any more. That is the point of this immersive show, and I wholeheartedly hope many people get the chance to visit before the doors close once more.