Sometimes torture has nothing to do with physical pain.
That’s the concept that Jean-Paul Sartre explores in the 1944 existentialist play, Huis Clos, being performed at the Theatre Nouveau Monde.
Huis Clos, usually produced in English as No Exit (but with the literal translation meaning behind closed doors), is about three individuals who are brought to hell to be tortured.
Hell, according to Sartre, and with exquisite design by Yves Nicol Inc., is a living room with a skeletal metal frame (with revolving frame doors), lit from below, adorned with a ladder and a firefighter’s pole that emerge from the bottom of the stage and continue upwards into the abyss. In other words, an existentialist’s dream parlour.
The first guest to arrive is Garcin (Patrice Robitaille, with the booming voice of a theatre veteran), led by GarÃ§on (SÃ©bastien Dodge), the scene-stealing butler/hell-keeper of the show. Dodge slinks across the stage, going up and down stairs and ladders, or walking behind the stage (visible through backlit mesh fabric) with the flow of Michael Jackson moonwalking in slow motion. Slimly dressed in black and sometimes wearing bug-eyed spectacles, Dodge is so perfectly omnipresent, sometimes his actions distract from the drama on stage.
And there is a lot of drama onstage.
Garcin is joined in the three-couch parlour by InÃ¨s (Pascale BussiÃ¨res, the Quebec film actress known mostly for her Jutra and Genie-winning performance in 2005’s Ma vie en cinÃ©mascope) and Estelle (the fabulous Julie Le Breton). Each character slowly realizes they are in hell together, and their murderous pasts slowly unravel.
InÃ¨s is a lesbian postal clerk (who has a thing for Estelle), and is the only honest one of the bunch, admitting that she is a cold, cruel woman. InÃ¨s convinced her cousin’s wife to turn against him, and kill him. Estelle has more direct blood on her hands. As a hot blond, she married one of her father’s old, rich friends to support her, while keeping a lover on the side. However, after becoming pregnant with her lover’s child, she decides to kill the baby by throwing it off a roof, leading to her lover’s suicide. Garcin, the most visibly upset, tortured his wife for years and ultimately left her because, as Garcin says, it was easy to inflict pain on such a martyr.
The room becomes increasingly unbearable for the threesome, as the flaws of each character are left to bleed like a gaping wound without a Band-Aid in sight.
InÃ¨s is cruel and unlovable (no matter how much she tries to push herself onto Estelle). Garcin is a “l’che” (weakling) afraid to confront his demons, while Estelle is plainly vain and dependant on a strong man (constantly hoping that Garcin will desire her).
Things get somewhat hot and heavy, when Estelle and Garcin finally succumb to their carnal desires, but nothing is desirable in hell, even when clothing is removed.
The threesome soon realizes there is no executioner coming to torture them, but that they are each other’s torture (“l’enfer, c’est les autres”).
The near two-hour play would have benefitted from a short intermission, but Huis Clos has a certain ebb and flow, so that the audience is not on the edge of their seats nor reclining in repose for the whole performance. The actors delivered well punctuated performances without boundaries &- they groped and threw each other around stage with realistic sexual desire and brutality.
Huis Clos is more a play of thought than of action, but Theatre du Nouveau Monde has included enough motion to make it enjoyable.
Upon exiting the theatre, patrons are asked to rate the show, dropping little slips of paper, marked with happy faces (ranging from two to four) or an unhappy face. Most theatregoers did not come out of the show with smiles on their faces, but their paper slips bore either three or four happy ones. It’s that kind of show.
Huis Clos plays at Theatre du Nouveau Monde until April 10. Tickets are $20 to 25 for the upper balcony, $31 to 35 for students and $41 to 47 for adults.