Theatre UNB opens its 2018/19 season with an evening of one-act plays — The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.
The double-bill, running at UNB’s Memorial Hall, features performances from the students of Drama 2173. Len Falkenstein directs.
First up: Stoppard’s 1968 parody of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. The Mousetrap is famously known for its decades-spanning run and twist ending that audiences are supposed to keep a secret.
Theatre critics Moon (Julianne Richard) and Birdboot (Rory Jurmain) are reviewing a whodunit. The critics start to chat before the play within a play begins. Moon is a second-string critic filling in for Higgs. Moon dreams of revolution, an era where the “stand-ins of the world stand up.” Meanwhile, Birdboot sings the praises of a young actress whose career he is ready to launch with a glowing review of tonight’s performance. Birdboot assures Moon that anything scandalous that has been said about him is untrue. He is devoted to his “homely but good-natured” wife Myrtle.
The whodunit is set in Lady Muldoon’s country residence, in early spring. Mrs. Drudge (Swarna Naojee) dumps this information while speaking on the phone with an unknown caller. Radio broadcasts alert local residents of a madman on the loose.
Simon Gascoyne (Chris Rogers) enters the manor unannounced. He only wants to speak with Felicity Cunningham (Brooke Benton), but Cynthia Muldoon (Jane Marney) invites him to stay. Simon’s presence greatly upsets Magnus (Alex Pannier), the half-brother of Cynthia’s late husband Lord Albert Muldoon.
The murder mystery unfolds clumsily, not that Moon and Birdboot really care. Moon fantasizes about killing Higgs, and Birdboot is spellbound by Cynthia.
Worlds collide when the critics become involved in the whodunit.
Acknowledging media headlines in 2018, Falkenstein pulls attention to Birdboot’s exploitation of his position. The director does not gloss over the serious abuse of power in Stoppard’s text. It is an uncomfortable kind of laughter when Jurmain’s Birdboot vehemently denies any wrongdoing, reminding Moon that he is a family man, despite his inappropriate conduct being an open secret.
Falkenstein avoids the whole ‘crane your neck to watch Moon and Birdboot (who you suspected were part of the play but weren’t too sure)’. Instead, Richard and Jurmain sit on an elevated platform upstage center. Their seating area is nicely framed by the red-striped walls of Muldoon Manor (design by Devin Rockwell).
The mirror element of Falkenstein’s staging is visually interesting and thematically appropriate given Stoppard’s ideas on identity (Birdboot is Simon, Simon is Birdboot; What does it mean to play a role?).
Naojee dives deep into the melodramatic as Mrs. Drudge. She really knows how to sell an eyebrow raise. It is a delightful performance. Richard and Jurmain are enjoyable as the theatre critics. There is a starved look for recognition all across Richard’s Moon. Jurmain’s Birdboot has enough bravado for them both. Brenton is sharp as Felicity, the rejected love interest. Marney is lively as Cynthia. The war of words between their characters is wonderfully tense.
Rogers plays Simon as if Simon has convinced himself that yes, he is the madman on the loose. He is meek and suspicious, the total opposite of Pannier’s Magnus. Pannier’s Magnus is loud and brash.
Temi Osunbunmi plays Inspector Hound, and it is a lot of fun when she enters as the incompetent detective. As Inspector Hound, Osunbunmi walks around in confident strides, as if the case is on its way to be solved, and gets up in peoples’ faces.
And Sean Miller plays the body, which no one notices until Inspector Hound arrives on the scene.
After intermission: Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, which premiered in 1944.
The famous line “Hell is other people” comes from No Exit.
The play opens with a Valet (Sean Miller) showing Garcin (Hirad Hajilou) his new residence. The room is a modest one, with three couches and a fireplace — an immovable bronze statue sits on the mantelpiece. Hell looks a lot different than Garcin, a journalist in his former life, expected. There are no torture devices, or red devils with pitchforks. The Valet is unhelpful answering Garcin’s questions. Satisfied, the Valet leaves Garcin alone.
A postal clerk named Inez (Hannah Blizzard) joins Garcin in the room. She suspects Garcin is the torturer, otherwise why would she be left alone with him? Inez and Garcin are later joined by socialite Estelle (Mary Walker).
No one is offered any reason why they are in Hell, nor are they granted an explanation of what’s going to happen inside the room. Inez, however, guesses that their punishment is being locked inside with each other.
Garcin tries to set ground rules, one of which is that each of them has their own corner.
That doesn’t work.
Since there are no mirrors in the room, the characters are left to rely on how others see them. That’s true in two ways. Garcin is tormented by the fact that his colleagues will remember him as a coward. He wants someone to tell him that it isn’t true, that he did his best. Maybe then Garcin can find peace with himself.
Estelle cannot be that someone, because she has no feelings for cowards. And Inez refuses to absolve Garcin of his anguish.
The door opens suddenly, giving the characters an opportunity to escape. Garcin refuses to leave. Why? Because he cannot leave without convincing Inez that he is not a coward.
Watching No Exit reminds me of arguments on social media. It’s a specific kind of argument, though. I’m talking about the kind of escalating arguments that blow up underneath a Facebook post. Everyone can log off and move on with their day, but no one does because some people have to win. Some people have an intense need to prove themselves in front of friends and strangers.
What does it matter? Whose mind has ever been changed because of an online argument?
People convince themselves that they are right all the time, but what is really important for some people is that outside validation that confirms what they know. Without that, well how can you truly know what you know?
Sartre’s play is a compelling look at the ways people are flawed and vulnerable to each other.
Blizzard taps right into the wicked cruelty of Inez and makes the character feel like punishment eternal. Blizzard’s Inez is ruthless in the way she tears down the other two. Inez has her weak spots, though, and Blizzard turns on a dime marvelously. Walker — no doubt inspired by Paris Hilton (circa The Simple Life) — is strong in the role of Estelle. There is something dangerous about Walker’s Estelle, who is not so innocent as she appears. The actress maneuvers carefully between Estelle’s bubbly charm and her frigidness. And Hajilou’s Garcin is like a stone worn away by water, then split apart in a flash. The character tries keeping cool, but eventually Inez and Estelle break him. Hajilou’s downwards spiral into anger is fascinating to watch.
And Miller is devilishly charismatic as the Valet. The character clearly knows more than he lets on, and Miller has fun with the fact. He dangles it over Hajilou’s Garcin like a carrot.
Falkenstein’s direction moves the play thoughtfully. Although, there are some stretches of the production that feel a little too heightened, as if the needle is stuck on high. The overall effect is what a boiling pot must feel like for lobsters.
Rockwell keeps the room simple, as mentioned earlier, but elegant. It’s exactly the kind of room that would make someone ask “this is it?” while wondering what the catch is.
Theatre UNB’s There’s No Getting Out of Here Alive: Two Sinful One-Act Existentialist Comedies ran November 29 – December 1 at the University of New Brunswick’s Memorial Hall. The double-bill presented Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre.