One could argue for the non-necessity for new scripts after watching the current double-bill of existential, absurdist classics at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC), the 2008 offering of their Studio Series. Jean-Paul's Sartre's No Exit and Samuel Beckett's Endgame are challenging, provocative works. Although a half-century old, they provide endless grist for philosophical debate.
For those of you needing a quick refresher, existentialism posits life in a universe that's at best indifferent, at worst hostile, but in either case inexplicable. Accordingly, we are personally responsible for our choices and the consequences.
Sartre takes a literal approach. Garcin (Josh Stamoolis), Inez (Corinne Mohlenhoff) and Estelle (Hayley Clark) find themselves in a salon in Hell — decorated with Second Empire antique furniture — from which there is "no exit." Their torture is not flames and pitchforks, as a smarmy valet (Billy Chace) tells them. It's one another, and we soon see how punishing that can be.
Not only does this trio reveal the acts that have condemned them, they can see their survivors and hear how they are remembered, or more accurately reviled.
"Hell is other people," Garcin realizes, "forever and ever and ever." There is no escape for them, and their plight ends with the line, "Let's get on with it," knowing full they will never finish.
Beckett's Endgame is more amusing and nonsensical, but it's also focused on how life is finished. Hamm (Giles Davies) and his servant Clov (Jeremy Dubin) are locked in an eternal round of conclusions. After a series of amusing physical actions involving a stepladder and windows, Clov's first words are, "Finished. It's really finished." But of course it's only beginning. He can't sit; blind Hamm is restricted to a chair from which he never rises. They are locked in an unending cycle of co-dependence. Hamm says, "The end is in the beginning. Yet we go on."
An absolute end seems to bear down on them. Clov peers out a window at the world and reports that "all is corpsed." The monotony and anticipation of death that hovers around them is broken only by nonsensical humor, occasional storytelling and comic interjections from Hamm's ancient parents, Nagg (Bill Hartnett) and Nell (Ellie Shepherd), who exist in side-by-side trashcans.
Mohlenhoff, Clark and Stamoolis bring a vicious energy to No Exit, each relishing the opportunity to make one of the others squirm and suffer, perhaps to escape his or her own guild. Each character is a tad monochromatic, but their conflict is real and affecting. Dubin and Davies perform Endgame like gears in a finely made watch: As they did in 1999 in Cincinnati Shakespeare's Waiting for Godot, the pair are perfectly attuned with Beckett's script. They pause for a beat, twitch, raise an eyebrow or a shrugged shoulder in such harmony it seems as if they've been in this odd relationship forever. Hartnett and Shepherd add humor and poignancy to the conversation about the last sparks of life.
No Exit offers a more visceral punch, full of raw emotion and a constant seesaw of people viciously preying on one another's vulnerabilities. Endgame is an artful work, poetic and more often aloof, dancing along the boundary between meaning and understanding in a tantalizing way. Each work takes about 90 minutes to perform; together they make a long evening of theater that might have been better offered in two separate evenings. Nonetheless, these are fine productions of classic works that deserve to be seen more often.
ENDGAME and NO EXIT, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continue through Feb. 10.