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No Exit

10 Feb

Downtown Saint Paul is the Perfect Place for an Existential Crisis or “You think too much!” “What else is there to do?”

I generally don’t trust the word “Gonzo”- if you’re not a blue muppet with high aspirations of weirdness or a rollicking journalist getting both higher and weirder, then I don’t think that the word really applies. The kind of zaniness that “gonzo” entails certainly doesn’t seem lend itself to French existentialism, as painfully grounded in crushing realities as it is, no matter how the Good Doctor decided to end it all. Which is why it is so cognitively dissonant and lovely to find that The Gonzo Group Theatre’s current production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” at the Lowry Lab in downtown Saint Paul is both painfully sharp and wildly fun.

This is about as happy as Sartre got in life, via Club Myrtle Mae

You already know the moral/punchline to “No Exit”, that hell is just other people, which, in the light of post-WW II France, made a lot of sense, and depending on how you view the world and who you view it with, still has a ring to it. The story revolves around three people torturing themselves by dissembling behind their own sordid histories and attempting to control their own situations, which makes the script fundamentally still relevant to the human condition. Scott Keely, as the insecure but self-aggrandizing newspaperman Cradeu, is mesmerizing, full of twitches and bluster from the first. As he is stripped away by the taunting of the man-hating Inez (Gail Ottmar) and the seductive power-plays of the ingenue Estelle (Emily Dussault) Keely embodies the vacillating brutality of a man desperate for validation. As Inez, Ottmar is wickedly delightful with her castigating and castrating runs at Cradeau and her own anguish at being rejected by Estelle. For Dussault’s part, she deftly plays off the predatorial and uncaring nature under Estelle’s polished and desirable surface, working a manipulative self-involvement that feels all too familiar in this day and age. The three main players, supported by Dietrich Poppen as the Valet, ricochet off eachother like stray bullets, tearing into one another and letting the blood flow, aided by the occasional zinger, raw sexiness and moments of pathos.

This being theater and an attempt at full illusion, there are some aspects of the production that just don’t click as well- after scoring a magnificent period piece to costume Estelle, an emerald chiffon dress over a nude slip, and suspending time with Cradeu’s khaki sportcoat, brown pants and boots, Inez’s high-heeled velveteen boots, purple jersey dress and scarf with spangly metallic thread felt too jarringly contemporary to fit in this place out of time. Similarly, the set, although as hideous as the play calls for, the modular furniture was neither a divan, nor angular, as the script states. As always, the devil is in the details, but despite those small pains, if you have any interest in actors acting, then you should get down to the Lowry Lab this weekend for a little slice of heaven in hell.

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