By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
The House of Yes is a delightful play that will nevertheless make you squirm. It is about incest — incest presented with such gushing gusto it could make V. C. Andrews blush.
And if the Alliance Theatre Lab didn't exist, South Florida audiences probably would never get to see it. Most theaters would find The House of Yes too rude, too ugly, and too potentially offensive to conservative subscription holders. The Sol Theatre might have done it, but it's gone. Mad Cat could have done it, but it's down to about one show a year, and it's doubtful the troupe would pull anything this weird in its new digs at the Arsht Center. The Naked Stage could do it, but it's a little too serious.
So thank goodness for Alliance, which not only has the will to produce an oddity such as The House of Yes but also knows how to pull it off. Alliance director Adalberto Acevedo, who is probably the most twistedly exciting director in SoFla, believes in the ethic of "going big or going home." He inspires his actors to gamble, to wander far beyond the ordinary repertoire of gestures, attitudes, and poses. Working with a play full of such otherworldly scenes as those in The House of Yes, Acevedo goes into a creative warp-drive that absconds with audiences to places they have never seen before.
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The play takes place sometime in the early '80s, in a house about to be walloped by a hurricane. It is Thanksgiving. Brother Anthony (the charming Justin McLendon) and sister Jackie O. (Jehanne Serralles) sit anxiously by a window, awaiting the arrival of Marty (David Sirois) — Jackie O.'s twin brother and, as we discover, a great deal more. He is bringing a "guest" for the holiday — his fiancée (Brigitte Kali Canales) — though no one in the house is aware yet. He hasn't known just how to tell them. Jackie O. is crazy and potentially dangerous. (She is nicknamed "Jackie O." because she spends most of her time imitating the former first lady's '60s fashions, especially the ensemble worn November 22, 1963.) Marty suspects learning of his engagement might send her over the edge. Which it does.
Serralles plays Jackie O. with a kind of Technicolor derangement that's enthralling and scary, one part Margaret Hamilton wicked witch, one part Delilah. She is the flagship nut in a houseful of them. Her mother, Mrs. Pascal, is played by LaVonne Canfield as a great edifice of consumptive womanhood, never letting go of her babies, whose lives she means to fold into her own. As pictured by Alliance Theatre Lab, the family is a black hole, and Marty's engagement is a mad dash to escape its gravitational pull.
There is no escaping in No Exit, next weekend wrapping up its three-week run at the Naked Stage. This production of the classic existential play is hellish — both because it's set in Hell and because there's no air conditioning in the Naked Stage's small Pelican Theatre. On opening night two weekends ago, opinions were divided (even among the staff) over whether the lack of air was intentional. I'll say it was, for two reasons: One, as Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist horror show spun toward its climax, the theater's already-stifling air became even more oppressive, as if on cue. (At the play's ultimate moment, I thought a couple of the older punters might faint. Very dramatic.) Two, I couldn't help but notice what looked like a large space heater sitting in the middle of the aisle.
No Exit is widely regarded as Sartre's masterpiece, possibly because it is so intellectually slight. (The esteem in which Sartre is held correlates inversely with how much one actually knows about him.) Here, there are no Marxist attempts to square the circle or windy defenses of chimerical freedoms. No Exit's most famous line — "Hell is other people!" — is the play's sole subject and very nearly its sole point. To explore the idea, Sartre deposits three humans in a Hell that, in the Naked Stage production, looks a little like a boutique hotel in a former Eastern Bloc country: small furniture and personal touches that clash subtly with the airless functionalism of the walls and ceiling.
Directors Antonio Amadeo and John Manzelli don't quite get the actors to cohere. Andy Quiroga as Joseph understates, Katherine Amadeo as Estelle overstates, while Deborah L. Sherman's work as Inez is typically figurative. Yet the actors are fine individually, and the show packs considerable dramatic punch.
For the set, Antonio Amadeo has created a room within a room: His Hell cell is housed within a square wooden box, which is surrounded by recessed purple lights that wax and wane. The room seems adrift in a metaphysical void — space, perhaps, but full of stupid heat. At the Naked Stage, there is a sense of possibility beyond the Hell cell, a feeling that creation is awaiting its cue. The one moment in No Exit when Sartre riffs on his total-freedom-and-total-responsibility theme — when Hell's prisoners demand to be let out of their cell and stand dumbly as the door creaks open — is made doubly trenchant at the Naked Stage, where the set and the heat suggest that all possibility, the Big Bang, and even Heaven itself might exist in the next cell. The prisoners close the door.