Your own personal hell

Existential play No Exit looks at the consequences of the choices we make

When the adjective “existential” is applied to any dramatic work it’s fair to say that most people expect the adjective “intellectual” will follow close behind.

Jason Mehmel who directs Theatre BSMT’s and VIA Theatre’s production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit doesn’t want that concept to scare people away. While he says “there’s meat to chew on intellectually” in the play he’s also quick to add that “there’s no homework you have to do before the show.”

In an ironic twist Mehmel says he wanted to direct No Exit which was written in 1944 after reading “a ton” of contemporary plays.

“I felt like I needed a palate cleanser so I read No Exit …. After reading it I thought ‘That was really good. I want to see it onstage.’”

This production marks the debut of VIA Theatre a new company spearheaded by Mehmel with a mandate to present classic texts by the likes of Chekhov Ibsen and Stoppard.

“Theatre BSMT has always been about emerging artists. Now Theatre BSMT is midwifing an emerging company” he explains.

In No Exit the audience meets three damned souls — a journalist and war deserter Cradeau (Joel Cochrane); a secretary Inez (Tara Marlena Laberge); and a socialite Estelle (Jennifer Roberts) — who are locked together in a room in Hell. Rounding out the cast of characters is one of Hell’s valets (DJ Gellatly).

“The characters are trying to solve the problem of Hell…. They don’t have a lot in the room defining their situation for them. There’s no head torturer saying ‘Here’s what is going to happen.’

“They are experiencing the modern problem of trying to make meaning when there is no anchor to make meaning on” says Mehmel.

Throughout the course of the play the characters end up replacing “their practised lies with brutal honesty” by sharing the stories of the sins that landed them in Hell.

Cradeau Inez and Estelle soon come to realize that their punishment is to remain locked in the same room with one another for all eternity.

No Exit is the play that contains the familiar line “Hell is other people” which Mehmel says in his opinion is often misinterpreted.

“It’s often construed to say that people are terrible which has a very nihilistic sensibility. That’s not what Sartre is getting at or what this play is getting at.

“Instead he’s saying we can make our own hells for each other and for the people around us by virtue of what we hold on to or the choices we make” he explains.

Mehmel says it’s significant that the characters are actually dead as it adds to the drama of the situation.

“If this were a play about people sitting in a room contemplating death it would be much less engaging. It would be like Lord of the Rings without the ring” he says.

He has focused on the “emotional reality” of the characters and their situation in order to prevent the show from veering into thesis territory.

The production takes place in the Endeavor Arts Gallery and the space itself becomes a part of the show’s narrative — the audience forms two “walls” of the room in which the characters find themselves.

“We want audience members to feel they are in that room themselves” says Mehmel adding that that proximity to the emotional action onstage will allow the audience to engage on a personal level.