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Through the Looking Glass 

A mirrorless hell condemns three characters to a life of reflecting one another

Wednesday, Feb 2 2005
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During the 19th-century reign of Napoleon III, well-appointed salons commonly boasted an abundance of gilt-framed mirrors. Yet the walls of the "Second Empire-style salon" -- the claustrophobic setting described in Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit) -- are conspicuously bare. The mirrorlessness of the room is a point of obsession for the three main characters, who are confined, following their untimely deaths, to the space and to each other's company for eternity.

The absence of mirrors (as well as windows) is one of the first things Joseph Garcin, a South American journalist killed in a cowardly attempt to flee Rio during a political uprising, notices upon being ushered into the room at the beginning of the play by a bellboy. Estelle Rigo, a voluptuous young Parisian socialite who killed her baby before succumbing to pneumonia, nearly has a breakdown when she realizes that from henceforth she'll have to survive without the comfort of her lovely reflection: "I don't know what I look like anymore. I don't know who I am. Is my lipstick still on? Is it crooked? Does it make me look like I'm smiling? Does it make me look sad? I can't tell what you're seeing. I can't live like this. I need a mirror!" Only Ines Serrano, a lesbian postal worker who dispatched her lover's husband only to be killed in turn by her lover, understands that a reflection can be more than skin deep:

Garcin: So, you think I look like a torturer? Please tell me, how do you recognize a torturer?

Ines: He's scared.

Garcin: Scared? That's very funny. Scared of whom? Of his victims?

Ines: Go on. I know what I'm talking about. I've seen myself in the mirror.

Sartre's use of the metaphor of mirrors in No Exit to depict a kind of inner hell is like Shakespeare's in Hamlet. In Act 3, Hamlet tries to make his mother, Gertrude, see the truth of her "o'er hasty marriage" to his murderous Uncle Claudius by showing her her reflection in a "glass," but the glass in question is not a real mirror so much as a metaphysical one: Hamlet hopes that by turning Gertrude's gaze inward, she will begin to understand her crime. Hamlet's tactic seems, at least momentarily, to work, as Gertrude is tortured by what she sees within:

O Hamlet, speak no more:

Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;

And there I see such black and grained spots

As will not leave their tinct.

No Exit's Second Empire-style salon, with its stiff furniture, may be a bizarre version of hell (the bellboy explains that newly arrived patrons are often puzzled by the absence of conventional instruments of torture like "stakes," "branding irons," and "wooden stretching racks"). But without being able to see their superficial selves reflected in a mirror, the three inhabitants, like Gertrude, are forced to look inside themselves. It's the worst form of torture imaginable.

In the Cutting Ball Theater's production of No Exit, the actors are presented with the barest of canvases upon which to paint Sartre's vision of eternity. The economy and precision of Rob Melrose's unembellished translation set a tone as chilly as that of the original. Jon Brennan's scenic design -- with its stark cream-colored walls barely enlivened by a repetitive, old-fashioned wallpaper motif stenciled in dull gold and some primly upholstered seating -- seems flat and almost two-dimensional against the permanent glare of cold white light. On the few occasions when the door at the back of the set opens, a hard, pale blue wash emanating from the corridor, coupled with a droning windlike noise, makes the outside appear even less welcoming than within.

Against the sparseness of the text and the stage, the audience's gaze cannot help but be focused as intensely on the characters as they are forced to focus on one another. Indeed, Sartre's words make much of the old adage of the eyes being the windows to the soul. The damned, we learn, don't have eyelids: Condemned to a condition of eternal wakefulness and torturous self-reflection, they cannot blink, wink, or sleep. When Estelle complains about the absence of a mirror, Ines says she'll serve as Estelle's reflection: "No mirror could be as faithful," she promises. Estelle is thrown off by what she sees reflected in Ines' eyes. Trapped in the confines of the room, the characters are continuously plagued by visions of the real world. The daily lives of friends and acquaintances play on a constant loop inside their heads, like private satellite broadcasts for an audience of one, as they attempt to describe what they see.

The actors' eyes are particularly fascinating to watch in this production. As the bellboy, Nick Maccarone spends most of his short time onstage regarding the other characters through half-closed lids, making the bellboy seem as sarcastic as he is otherworldly. Conversely, the eyes of the three newbies -- Ines (Darcy Brown-Martin), Estelle (Danielle O'Hare), and Garcin (Adam Kenyon Venker) -- are often pinned wide open, alternating among indignation, horror, and disbelief. The trio gives beautifully controlled performances, delivering Melrose's succinct prose with acerbic poise. The only moments when we're not held in thrall occur when the characters experience visions from the "outside." Director Adriana Baer has the actors stare longingly into the middle distance as they try to explain what they're seeing -- a funeral, a day at the office, an apartment being put up for rent -- but because these reflections from the real world lack the venomous drive of the dialogue directed at the others onstage, they come across as rather lifeless.

As the lights go down at the end of the play, we're left with the transfixing image of the three characters quietly resuming their seats and gradually fixing their eyes upon each other: Garcin looks at Ines, Ines looks at Estelle, and Estelle looks at Garcin. "Well ... let's continue," says Garcin, premeditating Waiting for Godot (Beckett's play appeared roughly a decade later). Through Baer's incisive direction of these closing moments, the three seem to reflect each other to infinity. And so the cycle of torture goes on.

Barely a year goes by without some Bay Area company or other seeing fit to give No Exit an airing. This year marks the centennial of Sartre's birth, an auspicious time to premiere a sharp new translation. The Cutting Ball's production, with its elegance and force, mines deep into the soul of Sartre's text, holding up a mirror to human nature.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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