REVIEW: No Exit (Quintessence Theatre Group, Philadelphia PA)
Quintessence presents an exploration of hell, but misses a spark amongst the flames.
There are explorations of Hell, or the theoretical concept of it, in almost every medium, and one of theatre's most prolific examinations is that of Jean Paul Sartre's 1944 existentialist play No Exit. Quintessence's version of No Exit is a new translation of that celebrated play, however, the new translation of Sartre's questioning of damnation leaves a lot to be desired. It's not that the translation is bad (it does a wonderful job of making the piece approachable for modern audiences), but the ideas Sartre explores somehow seem more dated and antiquated when applied with modern sensibilities and language. The production around this new adaptation also falters in several key places, making for an underwhelming experience that's missing some fire.
Sooo...This is Hell?
No Exit tells the story of three damned souls, locked in a room together for all eternity. The characters are from all different walks of life, but slowly realize that they each have a trait, or traits that will torment one or both of their counterparts. The three characters are all people who have done terrible things, being murderers, adulterers & generally ambivalent about how they treat other people. The play introduces us to a fourth character: a valet who brings in each of these would-be tormentors, but their appearance is relegated to the beginning of the piece. The show posits several ideas about morality, and the idea that mental suffering is a worse punishment than physical suffering, yet it only peels back the top layer of these concepts. It never lets the audience fully grapple with these ideas, and instead just lets the characters judge each other and give each other verbal lashings that ultimately don't amount to any quantifiable changes. The characters start and end in largely the same place; while this is a trademark of existentialist plays, the lack of growth is still oddly infuriating given the topics they discuss.
The production at Quintessence utilizes the narrow alley configuration well, making the space feel intentionally confined and blank. The three chaise lounges that are spread across the stage are beautifully crafted and used smartly throughout the show. Costumes, as designed by Aaron Mastin, are delightful, and I love the subtle ways each character matches their chaise. There are also live video streams used throughout the piece, projected onto screens behind the seating banks, but the addition of this technique didn't feel justified. The feed would turn on in random moments seemingly without reason. It's not difficult to see the actors' expressions from the audience, and these video feeds didn't add any additional nuance to the performances. That being said, the way that director Alex Burns has guided the actors to use the space is inventive and allows for some wonderful stage pictures.
What is Hell? Baby, Don't Hurt Me
Quintessence is usually a great showcase for talented actors, and while all four actors in this production are extremely gifted, this remains a show without a standout performance. All four performers hit the high points of the characters, but tend to stay a little too one-note throughout the production to really elevate or shine through the material. There are long stretches of dialogue that all felt a bit too similar in tone and delivery. From a conceptual standpoint, this may have been an intentional choice, to exemplify the idea that Sartre's hell can be mundane in its self inflicting torture, but for an audience it came across as slightly dull or repetitive.
No Exit questions a lot about our own mortality and what is a rightful punishment for a person who did terrible things in life. It doesn't answer those questions, and allows the audiences to draw their own conclusions. While this production brings a lot of those thoughts to the forefront, they are sadly approached in a way that makes them less engaging to watch than their full potential. There's no lack of talent on stage and off at Quintessence Theatre Group, but I personally found this production to be a bit of a slower burn than expected from a show about Hell.
No Exit is currently on stage at Quintessence Theatre Group
(7137 Germantown Ave.)
until October 29th, 2023.
For more information, visit www.quintessencetheatre.org