The stage floor dipped precariously as actor Will LeBow stepped up to begin rehearsal last week for the American Repertory Theatre production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Fortunately, Karen MacDonald, already in place on the suspended platform that is the set, paced over to counter his movement, allowing the floor to return to the usual horizontal position.
Most stagings of Sartre’s classic one-act take place in a simple chamber that represents Hell. Three people are locked in for eternity by a Valet who acts as stage manager, concierge, and jailer. But this production’s a little different. Remo Airaldi, who’s playing the Valet, explains, “Any move you make, the stage moves. The play is about people depending on each other, a dependency of need. You have to be minimal with your movements.” Although LeBow slid off once, MacDonald says she’s comfortable with the physical sensation. “It’s like being on a boat, and I grew up on boats every summer as a child.” (Paula Plum completes the quartet of ART veteran actors.)
Director Jerry Mouawad, who is co-director of Imago Theatre in Portland, Oregon, and co-director of Frogz, which the ART presented at Zero Arrow Theatre last summer, came up with the idea for a set that would enhance the metaphor of the characters’ battle: a 17-foot square platform resting on a three-foot-high support that must be kept in balance by the movements of the actors. “My concept of the play is a realization of the theory developed by [French mime and movement teacher] Jacques Lecoq that actors must recognize the dynamics of the stage. One of the Lecoq exercises asks the actors to imagine a platform. When one person steps on stage, the person opposite must compensate as if the platform might tip. The actors need to understand keeping the stage in balance.”
Mouawad, who was trained by the American teacher of Lecoq technique, Richard Hayes-Marshall, adds that he did not feel comfortable as an actor early on. “I always felt false in taking on another character.” The Lecoq training freed him from preconceiving what was happening on stage. “I became more open, more universal.”
And when he first read Sartre’s play, he thought it “too thick. I can’t face a playwright head on. I don’t want to. I was drawn to Sartre’s existential quality. I grew up Catholic. I understand having a deity over you and having a Hell. But ultimately Sartre is saying, ‘You are your life and nothing else. You must take responsibility for your actions.’ ”
NO EXIT | American Repertory Theatre | Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St, Cambridge | January 7-29 | $15-$74 | 617.547.8300 or www.amrep.org