Hell Dialogues by Dan Veksler is an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos (No Exit), an existentialist play, with ideas from some of Plato’s Dialogues woven in. It is directed by Masha Kotlova, using a unique performance technique she developed called psycho-physical acting.
The production was conceived in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a group of actors was performing No Exit (Huis clos). They decided to adapt the ideas of Sartre’s work into one that explores human nature amidst turmoil by looking at war, democracy, society, and social interaction using themes from Plato. The play uses physical and verbal improvisation, including, at times, engaging with the audience without breaking character. It is a complex undertaking in which thematic clarity is missing, especially when trying to incorporate the Platonic ideas of social morality and justice. It is for an audience that enjoys the challenge of theatrical experimentation and intellectual stimulation requiring focus and concentration.
The story concerns three people, a man, Joseph Garcin (Max Katz), and two women, Inez Serrano (Anna Zinenko) and Estelle Rigault (Kylee Jacoby), who are brought separately into a sparsely furnished room in Hell. Their conductor is a valet who answers their questions obtusely, leaving them to their own devices. They each expect to be tortured by some being for the things that caused them to be in this place. These characters had no connection while alive, and now they must deal with each other in death for eternity. They explore who they are and were and gradually come to the realization that they are destined to torture each other. It is the core of Sartre’s No Exit (Huis clos): true misery comes from the human inability to control the nature of one’s own existence.
The addition of the Platonic ideas is an attempt to bring contemporary issues into a place that is confusing and lacks clarity of purpose. The idea being played with is the absurdity of conflict inherent in the social-political environment of current everyday reality. The problem with the inclusion of this material is that a discussion of democracy and morality is not an absurdist undertaking; it is very much a part of the social condition in today’s world.
Katz, Zinenko, and Jacoby solidly embody their characters. Each effectively presents the emotional confusion and conflicts being experienced by the characters: the cowardice and masculine insecurity of Joseph; the intense sexual and murderous desires of Estelle; and Inez, a lesbian with a streak for cruelty. They all lie at first, but as the confrontations and clash of personalities continue, they all confess to the reasons they are in Hell. Each of the actors uses physical tics, mannerisms, and even dance moves in defining their characters and the circumstances of their incarceration.
Two other characters interact with the residents of the room, the Valet, expertly played by Leo Grinberg, a more pivotal character than in the original play, and Peter Murphy who plays the Valet’s uncle. Grinberg as the Valet is not only a guide for the characters but also the audience. His teaming with Murphy adds a distinctive element of absurdity to the play, again keeping within the nature of Sartre’s original work.
The music by Marc Ribot, The Tiger Lillies, and Beliy Ostrog adds to the strangeness of the setting, but the audio engineering by Eric Phoenix Goodman is not balanced for the acoustics of the venue with the loudness of the music making the dialogue difficult to understand. The set design by Anna Kiraly is an array of different colors and sizes of chairs randomly placed in the room in Hell. There is a pedestal in the middle of the set with stairs leading up to a door at the top and stairs on the other side leading down. This conception radically departs from Sartre’s vision of a well-appointed sitting room. The costume design by Sasha Mazhara mostly fits with the characterizations with a few exceptions, such as the coat worn by Jacoby as Estelle looking like a bathrobe and the Valet’s jacket being a modified suit jacket.
Hell Dialogues (through November 12, 2023)
The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission