THEATER | Gonzo Group’s “No Exit”: A hell of a show

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Hamil Griffin-Cassidy, producer of the Minneapolis cable access show Freaky Deeky, talks about the freedom of “the cable-access aesthetic”: if something looks great, everyone’s impressed. If something looks crappy, hey, what do you want? It’s cable access. Companies producing Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play No Exit have a similar freedom: hey, what do you want? It’s hell.

On Saturday afternoon, in the midst of the St. Paul Winter Carnival festivities, 11 iconoclastic souls settled in at the Lowry Lab Theater for a performance of No Exit by Gonzo Group Theatre, a new company that’s committed to no-frills productions of hard-core existentialist classics. (I also reviewed their debut production, Waiting for Godot.) When the lights came up at the end of the show, a woman in the front row stood up and crowed delightedly, “That was torture. Hah!”

no exit, presented at the lowry lab theater through february 12. for tickets ($15-$18) and information, see gonzotheatre.org.

Sartre’s play is an easy target for cheap gags (see the headline of this review), but it’s not a joke: it’s one of the most brilliant, surprisingly humane plays of the 20th century. As its three recently-damned characters come to terms with their situation, we gradually realize that they are in a hell of their own making—a hell that they’ve been in since long before they actually died.

Gonzo’s Waiting for Godot was a satisfyingly tough production, but it didn’t prepare me for how well the Gonzo players would do with this more emotional, accessible script. The uncredited cast give the play a searing, nuanced reading that’s gripping from start to finish. The company’s manifesto suggests that they intended to deliberately leave their audience unsettled and unsatisfied, but if that was genuinely their aim, they have failed: this is a very satisfying production that, for me, opened up new dimensions of this rich script.

Sartre’s sly conceit is that the three characters trapped together in a room in hell are there to serve as one another’s torturers. Couplings play a role, and the Gonzo cast member are very odd romantic matches for one another, but in the case of this play that’s almost to the better: these characters aren’t drawn together by admiration or even physical attraction, but because they need to feed their insecurities and shallow needs for control. Each of the three principal actors (Scott Keely, Emily Dussault, Gail Ottmar) demonstrates range and discipline, and all three rise to the opportunities they’re given to display genuine force.

If you’ve never seen No Exit, do yourself a favor and see this superb production. If you’re familiar with the play, you may find that the Gonzo Group have something new to teach you about hell.

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