Existential drama

No Exit

“You’re telling me that existence precedes essence?<i>”</i>

“You’re telling me that existence precedes essence?

Photo by Yarcenia Garcia

No Exit; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; $10-$20. Big Idea Theatre, 1616 Del Paso Boulevard; (916) 960-3036; www.bigideatheatre.org. Through July 25.

Rated 4.0

A journalist, a postal worker and a socialite walk into a room—and never leave. What sounds like the opening line of a joke is actually the plot line to Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic existential play No Exit, an examination of life, afterlife, self-projections, self-recollections and possible self-redemptions.

Big Idea Theatre’s production of No Exit begins as a valet (Jouni Kirjola) ushers three strangers into a rather stark waiting room with three couches and not much else. After a bit of banter, all three come to the conclusion that this is the afterlife, possibly hell, and they wait for fire and brimstone to smite them for their unrevealed sins.

However, it slowly dawns on the trio that they have been brought together to weasel the truth out of each other, despite the lies they tell when first gathered: that they themselves, as well as their fellow humans, are self-torturers. “Hell is other people,” goes the play’s famous, and sometimes misunderstood, line.

First is the self-grandiose Joseph (Bert Andersson), who tells the group he was executed for being a pacifist, though darker truths are slowly revealed. Then brash, aggressive Inez (Joelle Robertson) not only badgers truths from the trio, she also finally confesses how the love of another woman drove her to drastic and tragic actions. Finally comes flirty and flighty Estelle (Amber Lucito), whose self-centeredness was the catalyst of her secret sins. Philosopher Sartre also seems to be saying that petty bourgeois behavior is high up on the sin scale.

This is a wonderfully in-sync and talented cast, under the impressive and adept direction of Benjamin T. Ismail. All four actors capture the complexity of their characters, as well the taut tension that prevails between them.

Big Idea adds creative video elements to its No Exit production. Though it’s evident the filming took a lot of thought, time and talent, rather than augmenting the story, the videos most often are distracting and lessen the feeling of claustrophobia, stark surroundings and the always-present present time that are such intricate elements of No Exit. However, video distractions aside, this is a memorable and thought-provoking production of Sartre’s existential musings.