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Camping in Hell 

No Exit at NCRT

Liz Whittemore, Andrew "AJ" Hempstead  and Bella Rose in No Exit.

Photo Credit to Shawn Wagner, courtesy of North Coast Repertory Theatre

Liz Whittemore, Andrew "AJ" Hempstead and Bella Rose in No Exit.

Jean Paul Sartre was known for a great many things, chief among them is likely the creation of a quote as misunderstood as Friedrich Nietzsche's line about God being dead. Like that out of context, nihilistic chunklet, "Hell is other people" has probably been written on backpacks and high school walls by disaffected youth for as long as I've been alive. But the message itself has no real meaning outside of the work in which the author gave it life. That work, the play No Exit, is being staged by the North Coast Repertory Theatre, where I caught its second night.

Quick overview: No Exit means just that; the three central characters are in Hell, or at least something like it, a stylized salon where escape isn't happening. They are chaperoned there by the nameless Valet. They are Garcin, a middle-aged man, an intellectual and a coward, a lascivious and alpha lesbian named Inez, and Estelle, a young blonde beauty, nearly as vain as she is pretty. They are all aware of their own recent deaths but, as the action plays out over the following 90 minutes, uninterrupted by an intermission, they begin their damnation without the introspection required to be honest about the real nature of their circumstance. That includes an unrequited love-triangle, a struggle session of contrition and defiance, and a character study of what regular people do under pressure, in the impossible-to-comprehend circumstances of eternal bondage.

After first encountering it as a teenager, I have seen a few iterations over the years. It's a minimalist piece that, like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, gathers much of its strength from what the production company does within the spartan and translucent margins of its artistic boundaries. It's a philosophical work, not a lush, visual world-builder. With that in mind, I settled down for the action. The stage design at NCRT is simple and effective, with a David Lynchian checkerboard floor, bright blue, almost neon borders on the entranceway door of the Valet's portal, and a simple tasseled bell-pull, largely non-operational, granting a tiny degree of elegance to an otherwise cold room. There are two couches and a chair, a small table and lamp, and the sense of captive infinity curling like dry ice mist across the design.

Stage Manager Holly Roberts plays it the straightest as a stand-in for the Valet. Her comportment is perfect, a study in the professional-ese of absurd bureaucracy. I'm not going to lie, it took me a minute to find the right way to appreciate the rest of the actors' portrayals, settling on an almost cartoonish style of camp, which largely worked. Liz Whittemore's Inez is loud and commanding, a sort of pissed-off, caged lion pacing around and demanding deference. The blonde beauty Estelle, is played by Bella Rose as near equal parts innocent and preening, a hot house flower turning up its petals to an artificial lamp at the first sign of attention. The sole male Garcin, the stand-in for the ineffectual and self-aggrandizing, soft-skinned, idealistic leftist that was so familiar to Sartre, is pathetic. He's played by Andrew Hempstead in a way that underscores the true boundaries of his bravery and betrays the buffoonery contained in the gulf between Garcin's massive self-regard and genuine cowardice. Hempstead plays Garcin like an erotic clown — erotic in the Platonic sense of being intellectually driven, and clownish in the tragic sense of a lost fool. While they don't always hit, for the most part, these characters work well and I suspect the performances will jell even further toward brilliance as the actors settle into the grooves of the production. They seem well attended to by the choices of the director Amelia Resendez and I can only see this getting better. You should find the time and go see for yourself.

To return to the quote uttered by Garcin toward the end of the play, that "Hell is other people," without tipping my hand and giving away the arc of the play's narrative, the quote isn't referring to the horror of being trapped with other humans. Nor is it an anti-social call to arms to reject the collective aspects of society and embrace the impossible frontier dream of the "solo man" that has rotted out the imaginations of countless Americans who were mesmerized by the empty mythology of libertarianism. No, what "Hell is other people" means is that, when confronted by the impressions that others have of us, there will be an inevitable and often violent collision with the illusion of our own self-regard. Who we think we are will be tested and, in fact, is tested daily, by the impressions of other beings who do not live under the spell of our subjective delusions. This collision is a crucible that can crumble the prison cage of solipsism we erect around ourselves in the interest of self-promotion and self-preservation. The violence created by the contradictions between our own image of self and how others perceive us might be the only force that can enable us to escape damnation, to open the very doors of Hell. We must embrace now, not later, a scrupulous existence of examination that balances our desires with the commitments we have to each other.

NCRT's production of No Exit runs the weekends of May 19-21 and June 2-4, with 8 p.m. shows on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Call (707) 442-6278 or visit

Collin Yeo (he/him) is neither an absurdist nor an existentialist, but he shares a view of the ocean with both. He lives in Arcata.


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Collin Yeo

Collin Yeo

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