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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A.C.T.'s No Exit Is No Gem

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2011 at 7:30 AM

After staging exceptional productions of Clybourne Park and The Homecoming, it was about time for A.C.T. to lay an egg. No Exit, a self-serious multimedia interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre's much-performed existentialist chestnut, comes to A.C.T. by way of Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre. The show's concept seems clever at first, but it never rises above gimmickry -- and the performances grate in ways that I suspect to be unintentional.

It doesn't help that the play isn't the strongest material ever. I've never seen a production that manages to overcome the script's awkward dialogue or clunky psychology. The premise: Three recently dead people find themselves locked in a room together. They understand that they're in hell, and they keep expecting to suffer conventional torments. ("Where are the thumbscrews?" one of them asks.) What they don't realize is that they're intended to torment each other, leading to the play's wonderful punchline: "Hell is ... other people."

In this production, the actors spend most of their time in a tiny room offstage, where video cameras capture their every move. Those images are then projected onto a wall in front of the audience. In taking this approach, director Kim Collier hopes to intensify the characters' entrapment and isolation, but she only places more distance between us and the action. I've never felt so unaffected by the plight of Sartre's characters.

All of the actors give performances that would've been broad for the stage, let alone film. My date, who found the whole production as ridiculous and unnecessary as I did, kept saying afterward that the acting style reminded him of Ab Fab. For me, it was more like a hellbound version of a Susan Hayward vehicle from the '50s -- an exercise in pure camp.

No Exit continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater. Admission is $10-$93.

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Chris Jensen


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