The French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who died nearly 40 years ago, may be best remembered today for a line from “No Exit,” his most famous play: “Hell is other people.”
For Aaron Polk’s Twin City Theatre Company production, which opened Friday night, the line is plastered across promotional material as a signal of what is to come. Across 90 minutes, a brief enough time to spend in hell and still make it home before the 1944 curfew in German-occupied Paris, three characters engage one another’s petty fears and deepest agonies.
About 10 days before the opening of the current production, however, the lead actor departed, which forced director Polk to step into the role of Cradeau. Suddenly, the production’s mantra about hell and “other people” had become even more pointed. As Polk led his ensemble toward opening, acting coach Jude Love stepped in to assist the company along the way. Complicating matters further, The News-Gazette attended the final dress rehearsal in order to make our publication deadline.
As the first scene unfolded on the tiny stage at SoDo Theatre in downtown Champaign, there was a palpable air of nerves as Polk and Dylan Heck, as a tuxedoed concierge, entered the small, windowless room where the action occurs. The lights are bright and the room is excessively warm, the characters tell us, which may be Sartre’s ironic echo of the lack of electricity and heat in wartime France — though we certainly expect a little extra warmth “down there.”
The performance began to find its footing with the introduction of Inez, played by Gabrielle Smith as a strong-shouldered 1940s dame from a Hollywood movie. It is an interesting choice that softens the impact of Sartre’s original creation, delineated in the text as one of “those women.”
It is a euphemism for Inez’s amorous preference for women. More important than sexual preference, though, is Inez’s sadistic streak: She wants to torture everyone whom she encounters. In this particular character flaw, we wonder how Inez might be received in today’s culture.
The final piece of the puzzle is the addition of Antonella Ortiz as the vain, beautiful Estelle, whose comely charms will stir the pot and agitate tensions in the room. Each of the three narrates how he or she came to be in this place. To be sure, their stories will change as pressures of time and space begin to mount. Ultimately, it becomes clear that each of the characters wants something from one of the others — needs it, really. How do you suppose that is going to work out for them? They are in hell, after all.
Under Brian Hagy’s serviceable lighting design, an excess of illumination appropriately discomfits the characters. There is just one lighting effect employed, and it puzzles, as it eliminates a source of potential tension when a sealed door suddenly flies open. The red fires of hell beckon just beyond the doorway. Would it not create a more difficult choice if the unknown lay beyond the opening?
As for Sartre’s famous line about hell and other people, you have surely experienced it while packed like a sardine on an airplane. To the French philosopher, however, it likely meant that we are imprisoned by the power we give those whose judgment tortures us even as we still crave it.
The door is in our own minds, and we can open it at any time.