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No Exit
by Jean Paul Sartre
Translated by Alyssa Ward
Directed by Bess Moynihan
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 16 , 2018

Sarah Morris, Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

No Exit is one of those Important Plays that you study in English or drama class, but have you ever actually seen it? In speaking with SATE co-producer Ellie Schwetye before the show, we both commented on how many people we know (including myself at that point) had read or read about the play but hadn’t actually seen it. Well, if that’s you too, now you can see it! And not only is it being produced in St. Louis now, it’s by one of the boldest, most consistently excellent small theatre companies in town. Utilizing the rather intimate performance venue of the Chapel, SATE’s production is impeccably staged, ideally cast, and fascinating from start to finish.

The set-up and approach here are immersive, with audiences being greeted as they arrive by the blank-faced, deadpan delivery of Katy Keating’s Valet, who announces “Welcome to Hell”. The audience waits, seated around the perimeter of the Chapel on the edges of a precisely decorated room with limited furniture. As the play begins, the Valet eventually ushers in three newly deceased characters from different areas and different walks of life. The evasive Garcin (Shane Signorino) was a political activist, the confrontational Inès (Sarah Morris) was a postal worker, and the vain Estelle (Rachel Tibbetts) was a wealthy Parisian wife who insists she doesn’t belong in Hell. Over the course of the evening, the three manage to get under one another’s skin. Everyone’s in denial in one way or another, but soon the realities and brutalities of their lives are revealed as their interactions become the focus of the drama. The tension builds and the play’s conclusion produces its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here but once you hear it, you’ll probably know it. This is a classic representation of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy with sharply drawn characters and dynamic, thought-provoking diaologue veers from the dramatic to the darkly witty. It’s the kind of play people write papers about, and I’m sure there have been thousands over the years. Still, it’s a play, and it comes alive with a dynamic staging, which this production certainly is, directed by Bess Moynihan with a lucid energy that maximizes the drama.

There’s a great cast here, as well, from the unsettlingly serious Keating, a strong presence in the relatively small part of the Valet, to the contrasting characters of the three leads. Morris is all combative energy as the brutally honest, challenging Inès, with Signorino equally strong as the preoccupied, self-deluded Garcin. They are matched by Tibbetts in an impressive turn as the almost confronationally shallow, vain Estelle, who seeks her value in her desirability to men. The chemistry among all three is intense, driving the play so there is never a slow moment.

Also impressive is the complete look and atmosphere of this production. The 1940s style and character-specific suitability of the costumes by Marcy Ann Wiegert and the meticulous set design by director Moynihan make an ideal setting. There’s also impressive lighting, designed by Michael Sullivan, setting the creepy, ominous tone from the beginning. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also adds to this tone.

This is such a precisely staged, superbly acted production, with the strength of the script shining through. Kudos also to translator Alyssa Ward, as the wit, drama, and intensity shine through the dialogue. It’s the first production of No Exit I’ve seen, but I find it difficult to imagine how this play could be done any better. It’s a milestone of 20th century drama, but here it’s made fresh and very much in the moment. Again, the excellence with which SATE has come to be known shines through. This is a show that needs to be seen.

Katy Keating, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting No Exit at the Chapel until September 1, 2018

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