Existential stage left

Coffee houses have made a comeback. Could Jean-Paul Sartre be far behind?
The Nobel prize-winning author, if not directly responsible for the reflowering of Left Bank cafes in postwar Paris, probably provided their paint-smeared patrons with more conversational grist than any other writer. His varied contributions to philosophy's big "E"--existentialism--have been a staple of java-joint discourses ever since.

But what, exactly, was this fecund Frog going on about?
Some clues are provided in No Exit, a Sartre play now getting an uneven but interesting interpretation at Theatre Too, the cramped, underground space rented out to fledgling local production companies by the more mainstream Theatre Three.

The play deals with three unrelated people--Garcin, Inez, and Estelle--who find themselves trapped in a fiendish menage a trois. Recently deceased, they have been assigned the same room in the boarding house, or bordello, that passes for hell. At first, they are uncertain why they have been grouped together, but eventually it dawns on them they are to serve as each other's tormentors.

Sartre posits the existential notion that even in hell people are constantly evolving, "creating their essence," through choices freely made. As Garcin comments, distilling the existential creed to a catch phrase, "You are your life, and that's all you are." He attempts to reconcile his suitemates, hoping they can transcend their peculiar, claustrophobic perdition.

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The characters are forced to reveal the critical, existential moment in each of their terrestrial lives--wrong choices leading directly to their current predicament. Each sees that an opportunity exists to atone for past errors, but none of the three is able to harness his or her inherent lust, vanity, or cowardice long enough to seize the chance. "Life begins on the other side of despair," Sartre once commented, but these characters are doomed never to reach that side.

Director Mark Farr does a creditable job of emphasizing and illuminating the philosophical underpinnings of the play, though he selects a more optimistic tone for its ending than is implied in the text.

He's ably assisted by Morgana Shaw as Inez, and Pamela Doherty as Estelle. Shaw brings a chilling, ghoulish sensibility to the ravenous lesbian Inez, who "can't get on without making other people suffer." She's particularly effective when whispering seductively to Estelle, whom she wants to psychologically devour to the point that Estelle "sees life through my eyes," as Inez puts it.

Doherty turns in an even more convincing performance as the self-enamored Estelle, a woman capable of comments such as, "How empty a mirror in which I am absent." Estelle, like most vain people, must see herself reflected everywhere, particularly in a man's eyes. Doherty's own eyes show how opaque and unreachable this character is; there is a gloss over them behind which lies nothing.

Emory Rose is less compelling as Garcin, a hard-living journalist who made himself the hero of his own life and needs to be accepted by others on his terms, fraudulent though they are. Alternately arrogant, vulnerable, cynical, and idealistic, Garcin is a variegated character Rose tends to play in one shade.

Chuck Williams' set design, which features bright, Fauvist colors and a room set at odd angles, reinforces the claustrophobic, off-kilter tone of the play. The lighting, which changes from muted white to orange to red, and the music, some of which was composed for the play, are indiscriminately matched to the action, and are more of a distraction than a complement.

Speaking of coffee shops, this play would be better off performed in one, as a lot of foot traffic can be heard coming from the floor above the theater's subterranean space.

Still, both as drama and as an introduction to existentialism, No Exit is an enjoyable head feeder. It also has the merit of the classic line, "Hell is other people," a foregone conclusion to anyone who has ever attended a Mensa party.

No Exit runs through April 27. Call 871-3300.

Just because the majority of people who attend Dallas Theater Center productions are blue-haired old ladies out for a spot of culture doesn't mean the DTC is a stodgy old theatrical company wallowing in grant money and stale ideas. It ain't, as has been pointed out in these pages more than once, and as is further demonstrated by the DTC-mounted Big D Festival of the Unexpected, ongoing through April 21.

Now in its fourth year, the festival is producer Melissa Cooper's attempt to bring more new theater to the Metroplex. It's been well received locally and is gaining a national reputation as a spawning ground for the fresh and the feral. Cooper, it should be pointed out, is DTC Artistic Director Richard Hamburger's wife, a cozy arrangement that smacks of nepotism in some quarters but that really is quite fortuitous for Dallas theater, which, like a hospital recruiting a physician whose wife happens to be a nurse, got two talents for the price of one.

The festival offers a cafeteria-style selection of plays, performance art, and uncategorizable acts like "The Flaming Idiots," variety artists from Austin making their Dallas debut. Also of note is Little Mahagonny, a Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill collaboration (the festival's first previously produced work) and Entrevista 187, a new play by DramaLogue award-winning playwright Gil Kofman. All performances are tucked away in various nooks and crannies of the Kalita Humphreys Theater, and can be enjoyed pre- or post-Angels in America, the theater's current hit.

Prices are slacker-friendly, but tickets for the dilatory may be hard to come by. Call 522-8499.

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