Standing in a stairwell at Shakespeare and Co., audience members lined up to see new theater group Afterculture Theatre’s production of Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exitlistened to a litany of instructions from the show’s valet, played by Ben Rogers.
Rogers, dressed like a bell hop, outlined the rules for the evening: characters might interact with you, do not talk to them, but be present with them. Then he presented a funeral veil and, not unlike a flight attendant, explained how to wear it and that it should be worn by all audience members the entire time. What’s more? There isn’t exactly a place for everyone to sit. And that’s by design. Audience members are encouraged to move around the room continually, sitting down in a cushy chair for a bit before getting up and moving around, perhaps to rifle through the coat pockets on a coat rack or to read a letter hidden in a dollhouse. Interaction with props and the space itself was welcome.
Lexington has seen site-specific theater before,but Afterculture’s approach is far more radical in terms of how much the audience itself is a character and how free they are to move around the action. That made for an intimate, emotionally visceral -- at times challenging and at times thrilling (and often both at the same time) -- night of unforgettable, unconventional theater.
The premise of No Exit features three seemingly unconnected characters who are in hell together. “Hell,” as Sartres’ famous quote appears in the play, “is other people.”
In the case of recently deceased characters Garcin, Inez, and Estelle played by Samuel Lockridge, Taylor Schulz, and Courtney Waltermire respectively, hell is also a hotel lobby you can never leave, with only artificial light, no beds, no sleeping, no eating, just sitting in the lobby, eventually torturing and maybe even helping one another by the end.
The premise works beautifully in the second story space above Shakespeare and Co., with a smattering of sofas and cushy chairs. The visual image of audience members shuffling through the space in their veils took on an eery, otherwordly tone as they appeared to also be “guests” in the hotel, ghostly voyeurs.
The fourth wall never exists long enough to be broken and it took audience members awhile to feel comfortable inhabiting the space in a non-passive way. Not unlike the play’s characters, who begin with formalities and forced manners before devolving into the raw admission of ugly truths about themselves, the audience went from stiffly claiming spaces to territorially occupy in the beginning to loosening up and moving around the room, with some audience members sprawling on the floor by the end.
Lockridge, Schulz, and Waltermire deliver potent, stirring, and raw performances that inject Sartres’ existential play with fervent, palpable human moments. I’ve seen No Exit in a traditional setting before and it can come off as an intellectual exercise rather than human drama. Not the case here.
The trio’s performance is a tour de force, with Inez’ cutting honesty as cruel as Estelle's denial and play acting is false and Garcin’s passionate struggle with his own cowardice is palpable, pitiable. The deeper they challenge each other, the more compelling the drama. Throughout this, they sit on sofas right next to audience members as if they weren’t there, or sometimes leaning on them, acknowledging they are there, occasionally turning to directly address them. Think you are safe as an audience member hiding in the corner? Think again, as the action organically spills throughout the entire space.
One lucky person -- me -- was brought into the center of the action during a scene in which Estelle looks down on her old life to see her best friend has moved on romantically with a former suitor. It was surreal and thrilling as Lockridge quietly led me in a slow dance -- I suddenly, silently “playing” the best friend -- as the actors continued to work around us.
At one point, I strained to hear one of the actors but then realized, I could just walk up closer to them. That is the point. They are performing in the space as if it is a real hotel lobby, not projecting falsely as if they are on a stage.
Afterculture Theatre’s debut is a stunning victory not just in its performance elements and its grasp of the material but in its invitation to challenge audiences to become a part of the story themselves.