The definition of hell, according to existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1944 play No Exit, is other people.
Debbie Yones recently got a taste of Sartre’s theory, in person. “I had an experience where I went into a thrift store – so it’s already a madhouse, just in the way it’s set up – and everything was 50 percent off,” the St. Pete actress explains.
“It was like seeing everybody at their worst, pulling and ramming into people, and not caring about other people’s space. For me, in that moment, hell was definitely other people.”
Yones, who’s playing one of the four characters in No Exit at a staged reading Monday, April 29 at the Dali Museum, had an epiphany: “At a certain point, when push comes to shove, people become very selfish. And very egotistical. But always believing ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’”
And that, in a rotten, misshapen nutshell, is the central theme of No Exit. Three complete strangers find themselves locked in a tiny room with no windows or other means of escape.
Yep, they’re all dead. But this is no free ride to some carefree cloud city.
Roxanne Fay is adapting, directing and co-starring in this one-performance-only staged reading of No Exit as a live companion piece to the ongoing Magritte and Dali exhibit, which, of course, celebrates the surreal and the absurd. “Hell,” she explains, “is described as: There are no mirrors. There is no illusion that we can tell ourselves what we are, or what we look like or who we are. It’s all the reflection coming back on us from somebody else.”
She is directing the show in a way that maximizes the claustrophobia and dread of this particular brand of damnation.
Fay plays Ines, a cruel, manipulative – and somewhat salacious – postal worker with a lifetime of nastiness for which to atone; Yones is Estelle, the vain society woman who murdered her own baby and caused a lover’s suicide; Alan Mohney, Jr. appears as Cradeau, a coward, adulterer and egotist whose wife committed suicide after his execution.
“Estelle needs confirmation and attention,” observes Fay. “Ines needs revenge, and Cradeau needs credibility. He needs absolution and validation. And these are three people who cannot give those things to one another. They’re incapable.”
For Mohney, No Exit is a doorway into another world, one entirely worth exploring. “One of the reasons I love this story is that theater gives you an opportunity to see things from perspectives you don’t see anywhere else,” he explains.
“I like this show because there’s no resolution. So – where does it go? What happens next? I mean, we have an idea what happens, but for the next 600 years, how is he tortured by these two? And how does he torture them? I love that. I love the open-endedness of it.”
Nick Hoop, a frequent performer with Tampa Repertory Theatre last seen on this side of the bay in freeFall’s The Fantasticks (with Roxanne Fay), remembers reading No Exit in high school, along with existential theater’s other greatest hit, Waiting For Godot.
Hoop appears as the mysterious Valet, who delivers the three damned souls to their little walk-down, and watches them, mostly silently, as they tussle and squirm.
“Empathy,” Hoop says, “has taken a back seat in today’s society; I deal with it every day, doing theater for children. I feel like the most important thing I’m teaching them is this concept of ‘Hey, you should apologize to someone for doing the wrong thing,’ or ‘You should understand WHY you did the wrong thing, rather than looking out for yourself.’
“And No Exit is about three very horrific people who are so caught up within themselves that the entire concept of that is so prevalent in its non-existence.”
No Exit is Fay’s fourth theatrical endeavor cooked up alongside Dali Museum Curator of Education Peter Tush, to accompany a particular exhibit. Several previous productions were original works.
“I think that Dali would absolutely love No Exit,” she says. “I’m sure that he did. Because it’s so ‘id.’ It appeals to his absolute Freudianism, and his fetishes and things like that. These people are entirely id and superego. There’s no middle ground. I think that would really appeal to Dali. He had his own visions of hell, as well.”