‘No Exit’ at Nu Sass

What better theater piece to consider for an immersive, “locked-away” experience than Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. For that alone, Nu Sass deserves and earns plaudits for its very nifty No ExitNo Exit is the second production of Nu Sass’s Small Batch Theater (SBAS). The SBAS focuses on full- production taking place in a single room with audiences of perhaps 20 at each performance.

L to R: Amber Gibson and Aubri O'Connor. Photo courtesy of Nu Sass.
L to R: Amber Gibson and Aubri O’Connor. Photo courtesy of Nu Sass.

Under the direction of Angela Kay Pirko, No Exit is a tight, tough, far from an academically dry concoction of post-war existential literature from what are often now called dead-white-men who many a Baby Boomer worshiped. It is a production with plenty of heat, light, emotion and genuinely absorbing moments. The production comes across as a loved, vinyl LP with scratches and imperfections from being well-played, rather than the clear, artisanal crispness of something brand new.

At this Nu Sass production of No Exit, the words and scenes struck me anew. I thought I knew Sartre’s No Exit from reading the play over the decades or seeing other productions. But, all became clearer in the cramped intimacy of the one-room, second floor CAOS space used by Nu Sass. I felt as one with “the watchers” the characters spoke of and fear. Not so much merely a member of a large group.

For those not familiar with Sartre’s classic No Exit, there is no way for me to do it justice with a quick set-up about its themes of existence, choices people make in their lives and their consequences, along with the lies folk tell themselves as a means of survival, let alone about what might be the afterlife, where-ever and whatever that may be.  

So, let’s just describe No Exit as a drama focused upon a ménage a trois with two quite dissimilar women and one man. However, this is not a physically or sexually consummated ménage. Emotional release comes with words that hit the right buttons through verbal spats that channel their energies into needed release. Gratification for the characters comes with confession of sins and imperfections.

In No Exit, there are three souls who are dead or “absent” as one of the characters demands. Each is escorted into a room described as Second French Empire, by a shade-wearing, not the most loquacious Valet (Tiffany Garfinkle attired in black tailcoat, crisp white shirt with bowtie and speaking in a crisp, deliberate cadence). And so it begins.

The trio includes a flirtatious, vain, well-dressed Estelle (Amber Gibson playing soundly as a kittenish deceitful character, chock-full of unfulfilled sexual need). Estelle can know she still somehow exists if she can see herself in a mirror or has a man to conquer. She is quickly attracted to another member of the doomed trio, Garcin.

Garcin (Kyle McGruther. Photo courtesy of Nu SASS.
Garcin (Kyle McGruther. Photo courtesy of Nu Sass..

Garcin (Kyle McGruther is a smoldering, darkly handsome, moody man) gives off the vibe of being scared by one of the current TV pitch women selling Viagra to “their” man. Garcin has a penchant to humiliate submissive women. He at first has a craving for silence and isolation from talkative women in his midst.

Then there is the smart, commanding, confidently, out-spoken to a fault presence of Inez, who is attracted to other women and not men (Aubri O’Connor in an intense, physically imposing, intellectually rigorous performance). Inez smokes the other two members of the trio out by demanding they confess their true offenses; of which each of the three has a boat-load.

So our menage comes to this: Estelle who may or may not care that Garcin is a coward, but desires his affections. We have Garcin who can’t seem to even kiss Estelle for he knows that she knows he is a coward. And he needs Inez’s approval if he is to behave as a manly man. And we have Inez who clearly despises Garcin since he is male, as she lusts after Estelle. Phew.

With the collaborative work of Set Designer Eric McMorris, Sound Designer Hope Villanueva and Lighting Designer Colin Dieck, the audience is truly immersed into ultra-tight confines that add real authority to Sartre take on life and death. We are part of close-up proceedings, witnessing self-inflicted pain and verbal torture all for our enlightenment. The audience is far from being silent observers.

No Exit is a product of its times:  the vast, unfathomable deaths of WW II and the onset of the Cold War.  Of course, God was dead. And humor, at least in this production, is limited.  There is one light-hearted moment with a light bulb that brought great joy to the audience the night I saw the production. It was a moment as intellectual slap-stick. The production would have benefited from more such moments.

Tiffany Garfinkle (The Valet). Photo courtesy of Nu Sass.
Tiffany Garfinkle (The Valet). Photo courtesy of Nu Sass.

There is there still plenty of punch left in the decades old No Exit and the legacy of Sartre thanks to the taut Nu Sass production. But, like some much this reviewer remembers from what were ground-breaking, loud screams against the ills of the post-war world is now muted with age. The existential moment is now up against Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and a whole new generation with its own outlook on life, death, and whatever the world is selling at this moment of hyper-competitiveness.

No Exit from Nu Sass is a strong, muscular production with its search for human dignity even as it shows us that that Hell may well be other people, but then again it might just be ourselves, no other people necessary, thank you very much. No Exit has illuminating, though muted fireworks decades after its first production.

OK, let me say it this way:  Nu Sass’s No Exit starts out as merely sitting Shiva with strangers in a room with covered mirrors. Soon enough it gathers itself together to bring forth plenty of tang, lust, and intellectual release of energy. Good to know that after six decades No Exit it still can raise hackles. Thank you Nu Sass.

Running Time 90 minutes, with no intermission.


No Exit plays through November 22, 2015 at Nu Sass Productions performing at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Nu Sass Brings the Second Installment of the Small Batch Audience Series to DC: Sartre’s ‘No Exit.’




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