Genevieve Fleming is counting on Whitehorse audiences to take in the upcoming Guild Theatre production, even if just to indulge in some cold-weather Schadenfreude.
In one sense, the Vancouver-based director suggested in an interview, staging French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play, No Exit, is like holding a mirror up to our own society.
“We, the audience, are participating and may seem voyeuristic by watching these people tear each other down, and taking pleasure in it,” she said.
“These are people who are so perfectly balanced that they can’t help wanting to claw each other’s eyes out. It’s really fun to watch other people be miserable, and escape from the chill a little bit.”
Sartre’s drama revolves around three deeply flawed humans who are destined to spend eternity cooped up together after being ushered into a small room in hell by the equivalent of a hotel valet, or bellhop.
The first, Vincent Cradeau (played by Jason Westover), is a wartime deserter whose execution caused his wife—to whom he had been blithely unfaithful—to die of grief.
The second, Inès Serrano (Elyssia Sasaki), is a manipulative mail clerk whose sexual designs on her cousin’s wife resulted in the man’s murder.
The third member of the doomed trio is Estelle Rigualt (Andrea Bols), a married society woman whose lover committed suicide after she callously drowned the couple’s child.
Martina Vols plays the bellhop in this adaptation by American translator Paul Bowles.
“Each character, at least at the beginning, is really clinging to their constructed identity, which can include society, or values of etiquette and courtesy. As they circle around each other, we see a gradual stripping-off of these facades,” Fleming said.
“So, they take their masks off, peel those layers back and, as one of the characters says, they’re naked as the day they were born. Basically, all of their secrets and the things that are ugly about them are laid bare.”
Cradeau tries to convince the others to “stop playing the game and circling like a merry-go-round,” Fleming said, yet even when faced with an opportunity to escape he is incapable of doing so.
The play is firmly rooted in Sartre’s existentialist belief that freedom of choice means taking responsibility for one’s actions.
“These are characters who are refusing to take responsibility for their actions and their behaviour toward other people, and making other people make choices for them,” Fleming explained.
“They definitely air their dirty laundry, but I don’t know if that necessarily comes with acceptance of responsibility or the culpability of it.”
Sartre wrote No Exit in the middle of the Second World War, when France was under Nazi domination.
“It performed in Paris during the occupation, so I imagine it felt a lot like hell, to a lot of people, to be under German occupation,” Fleming said.
Although she didn’t offer a direct comparison to current events in Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere, the director acknowledged that contemporary audiences might draw their own analogies.
“There’s enough going on for us to find something to identify in the circumstances of being trapped in a situation beyond our control, or in the individual characters who come at it from different points of view and are struggling to accept those given circumstances,” she said.
“I think that goes back to the things that I find interesting and engaging about the play: that we can always choose to be nasty people, but perhaps we can make a brighter choice in our everyday living.”
While Sartre’s work revolves around his sometimes-complex philosophical ideas, Fleming says that alone is not playable on-stage, no matter how well the actors understand it.
“You still have to go for your goals and what your character wants to get out from the other character,” she explained.
“A lot of time, that’s as simple as comfort, or understanding, or to get your own way. It has very little to do with the actual philosophy for them, even though they are the mouthpieces for it.”
Rather than just a philosophical lecture, the dramatic tension of the play includes scenes of attempted seduction, which don’t necessarily go well for the characters involved.
“Each character approaches it from different perspectives. Even though they’re in hell and they don’t eat or drink, or sleep, or need to go to the restroom, they still have these desires that we associate with being human.”
Fleming grew up in an English-speaking family in Moncton, New Brunswick, and got her first exposure to No Exit playing the bellhop in a French-language production at Mount Allison University, in nearby Sackville.
Fifteen years later, she says the atmosphere of the Whitehorse venue reminds her of the black-box Windsor Theatre on the Mount A. campus during her undergraduate days.
“I love that it’s a really contained environment. I like the audience to come in and feel the tightness of the room. I think that really serves the production.”
No Exit opens at the Guild Hall on 14th Avenue on Thursday, November 29 at 8 p.m., with a preview performance the previous evening. It runs until Saturday, December 15.