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CAST's No Exit is suitably claustrophobic 

Jean-Paul Sartre's famed depiction of Hell has always been known in English as No Exit, though a more accurate translation of Huis Clos is "closed doors." The three netherworld newbies not only confide in each other as if speaking behind closed doors, they also have the ability -- for a tantalizingly brief time -- to peep in unobserved on friends, loved ones, and private rooms they have left behind.

True to its experiential code, Carolina Actors Studio Theatre casts you into the company's revolving boxagon space, shutting no fewer than four doors behind the audience and the fresh meat. Your ticket, coming to you from behind coal-black bars at the box office, is a mirror about the size of a silver dollar, to be surrendered as you enter Sartre's inferno.

CAST does confinement well, as Someone Who'll Watch Over Me demonstrated back in January. Compared with the production of No Exit that I saw at the Stratford Festival of Canada in 2003, presented on a thrust stage, the CAST version is far more intensely claustrophobic. With those four doors thrust forward, serving double duty as projection screens, there's a sense that the walls behind the audience -- just a single row of 40 seats surrounds the circular stage -- are the same walls confining the actors.

Thanks to atmospheric black-and-white multimedia filmed by Jay Thomas, we get a livelier sense of the visions experienced by Joseph Garcin, Inez Serrano and Estelle Rigault when they peep in on the world they've left behind. For me, the projections distracted my attention away from the actors, loosening the tensions of their confrontations and planting tedium in those portions of the drama where Garcin, Inez and Estelle tell us how they earned their torments.

Curiously, I found consolation in those moments when I wanted to see what was projected on one of the screens flanking my section of the boxagon. Because the doors jut forward, you're likely to be unable to see at least one of the four projection areas. Not seeing what was there viscerally reinforced Sartre's chief point in banning mirrors in his Hell: Without mirrors, our image of ourselves is largely dependant on what others see.

Compared with the Stratford production, director Paige Johnston Thomas has heated up the chemistry amidst the condemned triumvirate and placed blunter emphasis on the hellishness of their predicament. With Corlis Hayes as the Valet who brings our protagonists to their permanent quarters, decked out in a ghoulish hairstyle and a white tuxedo, we're verging on vampirish parody.

Dave Blamy as Joseph Garcin is the first lodger. Don't look for any Brazilian touches in this lifelong Rio resident, but count on Blamy to perfectly gauge -- and balance -- the journalist's principles, weaknesses and passions. The translation, probably the ancient Stuart Gilbert, is particularly unkind to Garcin with its quaint British exclamations, but his is the role with the most complexities and nuances. Blamy is equal to them all.

Sartre's women are interesting enough, if not quite so multilayered. Meg Wood as Inez is the first to join Garcin, mistaking him for her tormentor -- a mistake that turns out to be a prophecy, perhaps of the self-fulfilling kind. The postal clerk's seething resentments, dogged determination and lesbian lust all fall easily within Wood's grasp. Christy Edney is a fine choice for Estelle, the comely seductress who instantly enflames Inez's desire and gradually wears down Garcin's resistance. Although this gold-digger has a professed aversion toward thinking, Edney's performance never threatens to fall into stupidity, thanks to her hearty embrace of Estelle's arriviste snobbery. Some of her Parisian qualities may be on back order, but not when she pursues Garcin.

Where No Exit remains unconvincing is in its assertion, carefully cultivated by Sartre from the moment Inez first sights Garcin, that hell is other people. We're asked to believe that this threesome has been selected to be roommates with such fiendish genius that they are capable of tormenting one another forever. A hot production such as this CAST effort makes that everlasting stalemate seem fleetingly possible in a way that the Arctic-cold Stratford version never did.

Or let me offer an iconoclastic view of what we see. People are capable of convincing one another -- and generations of theatergoers -- that such diabolical perfection is woven into the fabric of the universe, applicable to billions of other threesomes since the dawn of humanity.

The devil is really in the detailer.

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