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‘No Exit’ is back, with a new entrance to hell

Bill DeYoung

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"No Exit" in rehearsal: Devan Kelty, left, Laura Frederick and Erin Johnson. Photos provided by Skyler Bianca.

The three self-absorbed characters who make up the cast of Jean-Paul Sartre’s exploration of hell, No Exit – and they’re a real basket of deplorables – are back in St. Pete, for the second time in a month.

No Exit, the definitive existentialist play, has a three-performance run at thestudio@620, beginning Thursday (May 23), at 7 p.m. each day.

Unlike the interpretive reading at the Dali Museum in late April, this version of the claustrophobic classic is fully staged.

The director is 19-year-old Skyler Bianca, a graduate of Gibbs High’s theater department who’s currently a student at St. Petersburg College. She’s worked in local theaters, onstage and in tech positions, but she isn’t part of any company, professional or otherwise.

No Exit, she says, is a “complete passion project.”

For her directing debut, she chose a verbally complex drama – Sartre’s nasty, abusive characters are all well-read and quite verbose – but, conversely, a play that takes place entirely in one tiny, sparsely-furnished room. So there hasn’t been a lot of elaborate set work.

“I had some time off, and I just wanted to direct a show,” Bianca explains. “I love art, I love theater in my community and I feel like there’s not enough of it. And enough of the good, quality stuff that I’m looking for. So I decided to just take it into my own hands. I’m interested in becoming a theater director.”

Laura Frederick plays Estelle, the needy narcissist; Erin Johnson is the duplicitous and sadistic Ines; and Devan Kelty is cast as the careless Crudeau, who drove his wife to suicide.

They’re all in hell, and because they’re each so godawful, Sartre’s point that “hell is other people” rings frightfully true. They’re stuck with each other, needling and torturing each other, for all eternity.

“I love that kind of theater,” laughs Bianca. “I love plays – especially weird ones.

“And I’ve loved this show for a very long time. It wasn’t actually a concept that was very difficult for me to grasp. I did a lot of research on the show before I decided to purchase the rights to it.”

Rehearsals have been intense, Bianca says, but satisfying for everyone. “It has been difficult, but my actors are wonderful, and they understand the concept of the show so well. We really play off each other, and have had a lot of conceptual conversations about it.”

(Jarrod Padgett plays The Valet, the fourth character – he delivers the trio to their “abode” and silently watches them pick each other apart.)

The philosophy of thestudio@620 and its founder Bob Devin Jones, “the answer is always yes,” is what opens the door to aspiring theater artists like Skyler Bianca. There are precious few performance spaces in St. Pete that would greet an experiment like this version of No Exit with open arms.

Bianca, for her part, considers the production part of a wider dialogue.

“What I want to do, I think, is to inspire more people to create art in the community,” she explains. “I want people to like the show, to care enough about it to go and research it themselves – learn more about Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, and religion, and form their own opinions.”

Tickets and info here.

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