Theatre Review at Large: No Exit

OK. So here's what happened. I was supposed to review Royal Porcupine Production's No Exit for last week's 'Thursday Theatre Review'. Unfortunately, the show, located just down the street from the massive Queen Street fire, lost power and couldn't go on. After a frantic exchange with No Exit's extremely accomodating media guy, I rescheduled for Sunday night. So, here's a special Tuesday edition of the Thursday review. And there'll be another one actually on Thursday this week, so don't miss that.

But onwards, ever upwards.

Now, No Exit is not a particularly good show. I really wanted to like it. But a charming cast and an interesting script can't overcome a problematic and somewhat confusing production. Royal Porcupine gets an 'A' for effort, but in the end their production comes up a little short.

No Exit is Jean Paul Sartre's most widely performed play, a piece of virtuoso philosophical navel-gazing that manages to remain engaging and clever despite its dense intellectual backdrop. It revolves around three people, each horrible in their own way, stuck in Sartre's idea of Hell. There are no whips or thumbscrews here. Ever the atheist, Sartre's exploration of eternal damnation is bereft of demons, torture and every other trapping of Judeo-Christian lore. Hell, as he famously observes, is just other people.

Royal Porcupine's No Exit suggests a few other permutations of hellfire, and not all of them intentional. For example. the production suggests that Hell is also Sports -era Huey Lewis. For me, Hell now includes the cripplingly uncomfortable wooden chair I had to sit in through 100 intermission-less minutes. And finally, Hell is Holy Joe's, the play's unfortunate venue and part of the Reverb/Big Bop complex at the corner of Queen and Bathurst. It's no fun watching actors attempting to compete with a horrendous screamo-grindcore band playing downstairs. It was damnable all right, although I suspect not in the way Sartre intended.

The show also suffers from some fairly clumsy production. Holy Joe's isn't a theatre, so the sets and lights suffer accordingly. The sound design was also erratic. In an attempt to amp up the hellishness of the setting, the sound design includes five semi-ironic tunes (for example, Huey Lewis' "Happy to be Stuck With You"...get it? Huh? Huh?) from the 1980s played over and over. The intent was presumably to simulate elevator music. Unfortunately, it was too loud. Added to the maelstrom of noise pumping out of the concert hall below, it made for an extremely noisy and dischordant experience.

Music also played a role in No Exit's baffling opening. I don't have a huge problem with starting an existentialist black comedy with Iron Maiden's The Number of the Beast, despite the fact its biblical treatment of Satan is a little at odds with Sartre's vision of Hell. I do, however, take issue with the fact that we had to listen to at least two and a half minutes of the song. In the dark. I could do that at home. No Exit is not a musical, and it doesn't need an overture. And it especially doesn't need one by Iron Maiden, no matter how hard they rock.

For their part, the young cast turns in endearing, if somewhat uneven, performances. They seem content to play their characters on the surface rather than dipping into the vast canyons of gaulic ennui lurking beneath. And that's not a bad thing, really. As a writer obsessed with abstractions, Sartre has created a slate of abstract characters. Go too deep, and you can disappear down a rabbit hole. Also, the guy can't write women. When you're set up as either a shrill, predatory lesbian or a psychopathic narcissist, it limits where you can go with your performance. Annemieke Wade and Daria Richards deserve praise for finding a little humanity in their roles. As the nazi-collaborator and womanizer Garcin, Gavin Magrath also does a nice job. Although his focus sometimes fuzzes out, he manages to lock onto Sartre's more important insights and deliver some nice moments.

No Exit is the first of three shows in Royal Porcupine's inaugural season. That's an ambitious run for a new theatre company, especially when Toronto's big theatres are having trouble filling seats. Still, while No Exit may not be a masterpiece, there's enough raw material and ambition on display there to make for an interesting debut season. I wish the RPP folks well. But for the love of god, don't do another show at Holy Joe's.

No Exit continues until March 2 at Holy Joe's. For tickets, email

Photo: Gavin Magrath and Tony Culverwell ask the big questions.

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