Off the Wall Theatre presents Jean Paul Sartre’s "No Exit."

Off the Wall production offers no exit from self examination

Two women and a man are shown into a room. They don’t know each other, but through the course of No Exit, philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist play, they learn to prey on each others’ weaknesses. In the end, there is no way out for the embattled trio and their valet, a man remarkable for saying little and having no eyelids.

Off the Wall Theatre’s 75-minute production of No Exit, which opens Aug. 11, offers something completely different to Milwaukee audiences tired of lightweight summer theater fare, says company artistic director Dale Gutzman. Through its narrative fabric, No Exit makes a sharp philosophical incision to expose the lost souls of its characters.

Gutzman, who minored in philosophy in college, took time out to discuss the upcoming production and its meanings.

WiG: Jean-Paul Sartre’s major thesis was that humankind was “condemned to be free.” How is that philosophy reflected in No Exit?

Dale Gutzman: One of the play’s key lines is, “Hell is other people.” This refers not only to the fact that other people can drive us crazy by seeing into us, but it raises the concept of “self and otherness.” To each of us, we are the “self” and everyone else is the “other.” We can never know or understand the truth of the other, because we are trapped in the self. …

Sartre’s three characters are trapped in a place which is clearly Hell, but which might also be “life.” They can never be sure of anything outside of themselves and they are not even sure of “the self” because we lie to ourselves all the time. …

Freedom involves making choices and then believing that our choices are real. But are our choices created by circumstance or by karma? Is there a pre-destiny? At least (if there were) we might think things that connect may actually mean something. But with no knowledge outside of self, we can’t be sure of anything.

Is there a reason that the main cause for the three primary characters’ damnation concerns their sexual improprieties?

I think the play’s sexual nature has to do with how we define ourselves through manipulation and control of others. Sex is only one way we do that, but a powerful and potent way. Our own personal hang-ups and fears are often betrayed in our sexual tastes and drives. Sex is very much about power and about abuse.

How we treat weakness in others depends largely on how we view weaknesses in ourselves. The play explores sadism and masochism a bit. Most of us lie, certainly to others and even to ourselves, about our sexual fantasies and desires. These secret desires are keys to our true inner selves.

Look at the false propriety practiced by our politicians and clergy and look at the scandals that erupt when we see that these things are just artifice. A big part of this play deals with artifice and truth. Makeup and masks play a part in this show.

What is the importance of the Valet? Why does he have no eyelids?

The Valet, the fourth character, is sometimes called the Bellboy, the Man, or even the Woman. His or her job is to usher the guests into the spaces they will occupy for eternity.

He is an employee. Perhaps he is like Charon, the boatman of Greek mythology who ferries souls across the rivers Styx and Archeron to their eternal fates. He is totally unreliable and therefore very annoying. And he has no eyelids because in Sartre’s Hell, no one sleeps. There is no chance to blink and to reset thought or regret or reflection. There is only and forever the now.

Your theater is an intimate setting, which suits the nature of this play. How do you plan on executing No Exit for maximum impact?

We are enclosing the entire space in plastic construction sheeting, creating a kind of a construction — or maybe “destruction” — site. The audience will be enclosed with the actors. The only lighting will be harsh construction site lamps. We are using only one-third of our already tiny theatre space.

How did you counsel your cast to capture Sartre’s ethos?

I’ve told my cast members to hold their emotions in, to feel them as intently as they would any characters they play, but to restrain them until they need to explode. I’ve also told them to “pull back,” “observe” and “distrust.”

Existentialism, if I understand it correctly, is the belief that each of us is alone in the universe and the sole author of our own fate. Do audience members need to understand and embrace that philosophy to enjoy the play?

No, they don’t need to know terms or concrete ideas. They have all felt that same aloneness. They have all felt what these characters feel. That is the value of the play. Audiences will see themselves in a room without mirrors. They will see their reflections in what the characters feel and do. If they are honest, they will reflect a bit on their own lives.

Finally, what is the play’s takeaway lesson, since this one is no mere entertainment?

One big takeaway is that art needn’t always be entertaining in a conventional way. We may laugh one minute, then feel ashamed for laughing the next. Art can entertain by disturbing us, by unsettling us. Learning more about ourselves from the art we experience can be entertaining in a deeply meaningful way.

The best art takes us from where we have been and moves us to a new position, and we may never be the same again. Perhaps No Exit can open doors for all of us.

On Stage

Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit runs Aug. 11–21 at OTW’s storefront stage at 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25 and can be ordered by calling 414-484-8874.

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