Andy Thompson and Jonathon Young in No Exit
(© Barbara Zimonick)
Andy Thompson and Jonathon Young in No Exit
(© Barbara Zimonick)
Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 play No Exit has occasionally been performed under the title In Camera, a literal translation of the original French title, Huis Clos. Now, Vancouver's Electric Company Theatre and The Virtual Stage have taken that definition one step further in their exceptional, multi-media production, being presented at American Conservatory Theatre.

Conceived and directed by Kim Collier, the existential classic becomes a cinéma vérité experiment, where the bulk of the action -- such as it is in the one act, single-room setting -- takes place off stage and is projected back to the audience on three large screens. It's a bold move that may have some theatergoers heading for the door, but those who embrace it will be rewarded by a singular theatrical experience.

Indeed, the approach brings the near-70-year-old play firmly into the 21st Century, and into a world where every sin and human frailty can play as reality programming. Yet, as successful as the concept is, the burden of creating engaging theater still rests with the actors and this company of four, who carry it off effortlessly.

As three members of the recently absent (a polite euphemism for being dead), Cradeau (Andy Thompson), Inez (Laara Sadiq) and Estelle (Lucia Frangione) find themselves in a hell not of fire, brimstone and physical torture, but the more daunting prospect of only each other as company for all eternity. Each is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the others in a never-ending, ever-repeating dance.

Thompson, who also serves as the productions video designer, offers up a pragmatic cad who tries to manage the reality of his condemnation through determined silence, only to break down, desperately seeking propitiation from his fellow condemned. As the lesbian Inez, Sadiq is all hard edges, brimming with suspicion and bile-laced sarcasm, that she deftly back-burners when trying to seduce the vainglorious Estelle from her natural inclinations toward comfort and Cradeau.

Buxom, blonde and well past her shelf date, Frangione's fluttery and seemingly fragile Estelle clings to pretenses of breeding and manners. In life she married for money and in the afterlife she's willing to consort with vulgar energy with whoever will help prop up her illusions of gentility.

As the Valet, a role usually off the stage after the first few minutes, Jonathon Young is both puppeteer and puppet. He ushers the newly absent to their final accommodations at the seedy L'Hôtel, but is as trapped as they are. With a reedy, repetitive whistle, he searches the halls and rafters for something out of reach, amuses himself making shadow figures on the candid camera projections of his unwilling guests, and desperately, surreptitiously issues plaintive written pleas to the audience to help extricate him from his own damnation.