Sometimes a heavy directorial concept laid upon a classic script results in a subversion of the playwright’s original intent, and not in a good way. At other times, an imaginative director can contemporize a play in enlightening and revealing ways.
Less often, a radical directorial approach is actually more interesting than the play itself. Such is the case with “No Exit,” a multimedia production of the 1944 play by French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, performed in its first English translation, by Paul Bowles.
Premiered a few years ago as a co-production between two experimental Vancouver, British Columbia, theaters — the Virtual Stage and the Electric Theatre Company — the original production is restaged here for American Conservatory Theater. This is its first appearance stateside.
At first, as they’re ushered into a small room, Sartre’s recently deceased trio, the defiant lesbian Inez, the vain and insecure Estelle, and the guilt-ridden reporter Cradeau (as he is called in this translation), assume they’re in hell and expect the torturer to arrive momentarily.
But as they break down each other’s defenses and are forced to look deeply within themselves, they realize that “Hell is other people.”
To theatricalize Sartre’s claustrophobic underworld, director Kim Collier has stashed the actors — Lucia Frangione, Laara Sadiq and Andy Thompson — in a small, enclosed room in a corner of the expansive ACT stage.
Once they enter the theater from the side-exit doors and are ushered onto the stage and into the room (with Cradeau, for one, scampering frantically up the theater aisle to escape before being dragged back forcibly by the valet), we see them only on huge screens, their voices amplified.
Each has his or her own chair and own segment of screen, so each appears slightly disorted in relation to the others except when they purposefully invade the others’ space.
They are indeed quite viscerally isolated from one another yet eternally, dreadfully, interconnected. Several (unseen) stationary cameras (video design by actor Thompson) capture their activities from various angles.
It’s all impressively uncanny, enhanced by Kristen McGhie’s 1940s-era costumes and Brian Linds’ ominous sound design.
The role of the valet (an impish Jonathon Young), who is in a parallel universe on the ACT stage itself, has been expanded with additional lines and activities that highlight Sartre’s existential themes. Like the damned trio, he too is caught in an eternal loop.
It’s a fascinating context in which to place Sartre’s histrionic, self-absorbed characters — but they’re still histrionic, and, despite the best efforts of the cast, their moral concerns still feel contrived and impersonal.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 1
Tickets: $10 to $85
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org