Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"No Exit" and "The Three Sisters"

The two most publicized productions currently running in the Bay Area—No Exit at ACT and The Three Sisters at Berkeley Rep—share a strikingly similar conceit: a group of people who are trapped inside and torture each other as a result. In Sartre’s existentialist piece, it’s three strangers condemned to hell—a too-bright parlor with a locked door. In Chekhov’s realist drama, it’s a family of pre-Revolution Russian aristocrats, consigned to life in a countryside estate when they would infinitely prefer the culture, the hustle and bustle of Moscow.

(Natalia Payne, Heather Wood and Wendy Rich Stetson in Berkeley Rep's production. Photo courtesy of

Entrapment, both productions attest, reduces the individual to his or her worst qualities. But it also breeds codependence. In both plays, the characters get the opportunity to leave their confines. At one point in No Exit, the parlor door opens, giving the characters who were just banging on it the chance to look out and even wander about the “hotel” in which their parlor is just a room. But they are both too afraid to leave without one another and too intent on not letting anyone escape the torture each knows the others deserve.

Chekhov’s characters are both more and less free: their doors are not locked, and no one is physically preventing them from leaving the small, rural town they find so dreary and unrefined. But for the three sisters’ family, everybody has to move, or nobody can move—such were the social constraints imposed on women. Even more importantly, the family does not have a deadline for departure; moving to Moscow is just a dream—the big change they want to and could make to their lives, if only they could summon the initiative. But for them inertia prevails, brewing restlessness, boredom and animosity. In this sense, the production feels remarkably contemporary, and quite well-suited to the Bay Area: How many privileged young people do I know whose inflated sense of self makes them think, “Grandiose plans, or no plans at all!” (myself included)?

And yet, though most Chekhov plays—The Three Sisters included—are about bored aristocrats, the plays themselves cannot be boring. Even when characters are idly lying around—or, worse, un-ironically suggesting, “Let’s philosophize!”—performers must endow each action with specificity of purpose, always deep in their knowledge of who they are and what they want. In this production, actors in two crucial roles—Irina (Heather Wood), the idealistic, youngest sister, and Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie), a soldier new to town—sap an otherwise energetic ensemble in failing to put forth clear answers to those basic questions.

(Bruce McKenzie and Natalia Payne.)

On the other hand, in ACT’s No Exit, the actors are all strong; it’s director Kim Collier’s overwrought concept that bogs down the production. We only see the outside of the parlor in which the three damned torment each other. Inside it are video cameras that both secretly observe the proceedings and serve as video confessionals, almost in the mode of reality t.v. Above the stage that’s visible to the audience, three projectors show what the different cameras see.

(Photo by Barbara Zimoneck.)

On that stage is a valet (Jonathon Young, who also adapted the script), who appears only in the beginning of the original script, when he sardonically introduces the damned to their unlikely prison. In this adaptation, he’s around throughout the play, offering morbid commentary on the video proceedings, which gives the spectators cues as to how to respond while also making them choose whether to watch him or to watch the video. His interaction with the projection is occasionally interesting, as when characters in the doorway to the parlor are visible both onstage and onscreen, or when the valet creates a shadow puppet who dances with the onscreen characters or climbs up a ladder to poke fun, literally, at their facial tics. But the concept grows tiresome when Collier runs out of tricks. You don’t know whether you’re watching a movie or a play, and that disorientation exists for its own sake, rather than the play's.

(Andy Thompson as Cradeau, and Jonathon Young as The Valet. Photo by Michael Julian Berz)

"Hell is other people" is the most famous line from No Exit. I might joke that these productions offer audiences another kind of hell—but that's an overstatement: We can always leave when the show's over.


No Exit continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times) until May 1 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets ($10 and up) at

The Three Sisters continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times) until May 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets ($10 and up) at

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