Eternal damnation = uncomfortable furniture

“Hell is other people” — inarguably that is the most famous line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. At Garfield Artworks, Hell was two ugly couches and track lighting. That, a comfortable chair, and a bronze sculpture on a table were all that sat on the stage, which was at eye level. The audience, made up of men and women mostly in their 20s, sat on folding chairs in a room three times deeper than it was wide. Last Saturday night was the final performance of Cup-A-Jo Productions’ No Exit, which ran for two weekends in a row.

From the sidewalk, Garfield Artworks is just another storefront, but upon entering, a unique, intimate creative space erupts out of nothing. Canvases, some blank, lined both walls in a room that should have been drafty, but wasn’t. The white walls were dirty and scratched from seemingly continuous hanging and nailing of canvases and whatever exhibits had come and gone over the years. Open ladders waited to be used and hidden artwork waited to be hung.

Most of the actors had local ties to the community. Joanna Lowe, who played Inez, founded Cup-A-Jo Productions in 2004 and along with Everett Lowe, Amanda Dugan, Gregory Caridi, Jaime Slavinsky, and Chelsea Kirch, performed a remarkably humorous rendition of No Exit. The play was introduced with the kind of joke expected of a high school student who did outside reading after the teacher touched on existentialism: “Sorry for the delay. We were waiting for one of our subscribers. Mr. Godot is not coming.” (A reference to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play with almost identical themes.)

Dugan, who played the Valet, a man in the original text, revealed no emotion, as required by a keeper of lost souls. The play opened with her escorting Garcin, played by Caridi, to an empty hotel room with no windows or mirrors, which we soon discover to be Hell. Garcin is followed by Inez, and then the beautiful and feminine Estelle (Slavinsky). The three torture each other throughout the play by preying on each others’ vulnerabilities and evil deeds, all the while aware of what they are doing. This awareness is also what makes them stop. In one of the play’s most comical scenes, Estelle attempts to murder the (already dead) Inez. The bulk of the interactions depicted in the 90-minute show, it’s safe to assume, are likely to repeat for all of eternity.

Those who have read Sartre’s play consider it the classic existential text. Sartre’s existentialism, however, has slightly different facets from the existentialism that is prevalent today. Sartre believed that man defined the meaning of his own life in a purposeless world through existing. “Existence precedes essence,” which was uttered by Sartre himself, much better defines what existentialism is. Another major aspect of Sartre’s existentialism is the belief that humans are condemned to freedom and responsibility for their own actions.

Aside from the ringing cell phone and the loud whisper, “What is a cad?”, the evening was enjoyable and the play was entertaining. It’s a rare occasion when the torturous nature of human relationships is approached with such humor.