Hell Is Heaven in No Exit from Bit of a Stretch Theatre Co.

The set-up:

If we are to judge Bit of a Stretch Theatre Co.'s provocative production of Jean-Paul Sartre's most successful play, No Exit (1944), we'd have to disagree with its most famous line: Hell is other people. Sartre's characters, who are trapped together in a windowless room somewhere in the endless corridors of Hell, are enacted by a stunning trio of actors whom we can only call celestial. The entire piece is fascinating, sensitively directed, and imaginatively thought out. Hell, no. Heaven, yes.

The execution:

Although his monumental work on existentialism, Being and Nothingness, had been published a year earlier and was gaining a steady audience, it was Sartre's existential play No Exit, produced in Paris three months before D-Day, that brought him the fame he was seeking. More than anything, he wanted to be popular, and by putting his ideas on stage, he did just that. His timing was impeccable. When France was delivered from the Nazis, the country had its new Gallic philosopher ready to be acclaimed. The postwar generation took him to its bosom, and he became the father of their "let-it-be" movement.

In his private life, Sartre never lived up to his own doctrine of "action before words," pouring forth a torrent of books, novels, plays, and treatises, which changed direction over the decades so that he could be, at one time, in favor of the Communists, before being against them, or being with "the workers," although he never did anything personally to justify his solidarity. He basically wanted to do his own thing, write about it beautifully and at length, and be left alone, except for the public accolades. He did become "the father of existentialism," so his place in 20th-century thought is secure, if his tenets are somewhat forgotten and misunderstood.

No Exit will never be forgotten. Three people are trapped in Hell, torturing each other as they relive the past eternally. Being dead, they cannot break out of their history, cannot change what the living think of them, and are doomed to repeat their mistakes forever. When coward Garcin (Brandon Hobratschk) says that famous line from the play, he doesn't mean he wants to be alone, but that his true worth is judged by the others. His fate is no longer his to command. He must live with the knowledge that he has been found wanting, and that knowledge is hell, no matter where he is. Even when the locked door suddenly swings open, he can't bring himself to leave the room. None of them can.

Garcin needs his other cellmates -- Inez the bitchy lesbian (Meg Wozniak) and Estelle the superficial nympho (Betty Marie Muessig) -- to validate his past. He can be cleansed, perhaps -- but it's only a vague hope -- if they believe in him. Of course, the others are in the same predicament. They need the other two, also. The three of them, constantly shifting the apex of the dramatic triangle, are caught in an intricate dance of death, or after-death, as it were. Without the constant torture of being reminded of their human failings, they will never be alive. It's all very existential. But Sartre makes us think as we're being entertained, and that's a very good thing indeed.

In his later years, Sartre's philosophizing got a little wobbly, but as a dramatist he's on firm ground. He brings on his characters one by one, accompanied by the lidless Valet (Jacob Perkel in obsequious mode and appropriately attired in tails with red piping and buttons) -- you don't sleep in Hell, so there's no need for eyelids. Each character starts off lying to the others about why they think they've "arrived," although Inez, harder and more willing to accept her fate, is clearer than the other two. Younger Estelle knows there's been a mistake on her part. All she did was marry an older man for his money. Certainly that's not reason enough to be whisked into Hell? Slowly, in plangent monologues that are triggered by memory -- according to Sartre, being tortured in Hell is able to recall your past and also witness the present -- their baser secrets are revealed.

In the intimate space of 14 Pews, Leslie Turner's minimal design is arresting. Against black drapes, the doorway is chewed out of the wall. The three chairs, fixed to the floor, are vaguely Second Empire as Sartre specifies, and the oriental rug is a nice touch out of Hilton hell.

Hobratschk is all brusque and gruff as the man's man who isn't what he seems; Wozniak, in severe black-and-white outfit with tailored pants and pleated blouse, is modern ice, efficient and calculating. She sets her vampiric sights upon Estelle's luscious patisserie and prepares to eat her alive. Muessig is aflutter at first, her golden curls bouncing in indignation, but when the jig is up and her sordid past comes tumbling out, her flawless makeup seems to turn masklike and gruesome. All three play together beautifully as if they've been trapped for eons, while director Emma Martinsen, like a grand chess master, maneuvers them around the small playing area with constant variation and dramatic aplomb.

Special applause should be given to composer Wiley DeWeese, who accompanies the action on synthesizer downstage right. His atmospheric score, a kick of Gershwin swing, a bit of silent movie underscoring, is most pleasing, adding atmosphere to our overall enjoyment. If anything, there should be more of his music.

The verdict:

For all Sartre's heavy thinking, this No Exit is in continuous motion. It's perpetually full of delight and utter surprise. This is Hell, after all. There are always endless variations.

Sartre's masterpiece about the hell we create for ourselves runs through June 26 at 14 Pews Art House, 800 Aurora. For information, call 281-888-9677 or visit the company website. Tickets are $15 to $20.

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