First, let’s get this off the bat: Dramatis Personae and artistic director Lito Casaje should be commended for co-producing, along with the French Embassy, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” which recently played for one night at the Rajah Sulayman Theater in Fort Santiago.
The French existentialist’s material is neither for the faint-hearted nor the entertainment-seeker. It is dark and moody, challenges one’s brain to follow the labyrinthian twists and turns of the demented and the villainous, and has no happy ending. The characters are downright unsympathetic.
Casaje amped up the discomfort in this production by sticking to a stark set. Rajah Sulayman’s roofless venue and the lack of cushy chairs usually found in a theater added to the sense of unease. Somewhere along the way, the viewer just wanted the play to end.
Sartre’s masterpiece is a journey into evil, its nature and what makes it possible. With no redemption at the end— hence the title—it becomes an agonizing treatise on the weaknesses of human nature and the ways and means by which we create our own hell.
“No Exit” has also become popular in the modern world for its catchphrase, original or paraphrased: “Hell is being surrounded by other people.”
This is a condition many can sympathize with. One only needs to spend a week with the boss from hell or quarrelsome, manipulative in-laws to get the picture.
However, I join the minority and paraphrase some of the lines in the play to highlight a more dismal point: “Hell is seeing the rottenness in your soul and knowing you can do nothing about it.”
That the three characters—Joseph (Ryan Mendoza), Inez (Trisha Perez) and Estelle (Sera Mistal)—were trapped in Hell was something that the audience already knew. The huge gate guarded by a wicked valet (Raymond de Leon) wouldn’t open, defying their every attempt. The dread was compounded by the thought that they would be tortured. But as the ensuing dialogue showed, there was no need for the rack, the whip or the electric prod—the torture lay in recognizing what truly constituted their core and how it was mirrored in other people.
At first, Joseph and Estelle refused to accept their situation. They justified themselves as being the average middle-class working guy (or girl) who behaved like everyone else. Only the sado-masochist queen Inez would own up to her “crimes.” She baited the other two, pushed and pulled, taunted and mocked until finally her prey spilled out their own sordid sins.
Confession, though, was not good enough for the soul in this context—and certainly would not earn them brownie points in Heaven. The massive gate remained closed. The damned remained damned. And throughout, these characters’ base desires, insecurities, hidden passions and manipulation of other people were laid bare for all to see.
Apologies to all the previous reviewers and philosophers who had seen the play—but what emerged was that other people could personify Hell only in so far as they mirrored the vacuum and evil in their own souls.
The corruption had to have a starting point. That was why the gate remained closed—and when it opened for a time, Joseph and Estelle could not leave. They realized their inner core and this would not be welcome anywhere else.
Try imagining yourself writhing in pangs of self-loathing, increase the levels a dozen times, and suicide just might be welcome. But there happens to be no suicide in the valley of the already damned.
The material did not pull its punches—and the intensity of the dialogue, regardless of the performance, could leave you nauseated. Such was the brilliance of Sartre’s play that its wit and scathing analysis of humanity shone in the darkness. It also stood out despite the callow, if earnest, performances of the DP actors.
The material called for depth, as layers of depravity and alienation had to be uncovered one bloody layer at a time. To deliver it with power, one needed seasoned (or older) actors, but the DP performers were young, and could have matched their honest fire with more rehearsals or a ruthless kind of soul-searching.
Casaje could have also paced the build-up more dramatically. No such tension came to pivotal scenes such as the eventful opening of the gate—and the characters’ baffling decision not to seize their freedom.
DP will have more chances to mount other non-commercial classics—and they are welcome. At press time, Casaje is considering producing another French existentialist play, Albert Camus’ “Caligula.”