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by Lydia Howell

Staggering away after EXITNOEXIT, I felt as if I’d just emerged from the crowded isolation of an American prison cell. This multi-media adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” is a visceral experience engaging all your senses. Re-imagining Sartre’s meditation on human alienation with a fresh American translation and bold directing is University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater student, Jeremy Catterton. Remember his name, as this play foreshadows greatness for him.

“The full title is ‘EXITNOEXIT: As Performed by the Inmates of Ghostwood Minimal Security Prison’—like Peter Weiss’ ‘Marat/Sade.’ The origins of the prison are the insane asylums, lodgings built for the homeless, diseased, unwanted,” Catterton explains. “That’s the parent of the institutions and correctional facilities we have today...I call it warehousing bodies.”

Catterton’s production echoes Weiss’ 1960’s synthesis of social critique and aesthetic daring. Hearing about the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act spurred Catterton’s two years of research and re-translation.

The Clinton omnibus bill (a criminal-justice system parallel to the PATRIOT Act) escalated prison-building and created draconian drug laws, including “three strikes,” mandatory minimums and even life sentences when no murder occurred—tripling America’s prison population, the largest in the world.

“I thought it was ridiculous! $8.7 BILLION for constructing prisons! “Indignation sharpens his usually introspective tone. “We’ll have to shift funds as a country. Putting all this money into warehousing and constructing more prisons, where’s the money for education and rehabilitation coming from? Impoverished neighborhoods, with few resources—desperate times call for desperate measures. Building more cells, the prison-industrial complex, privatizing so that it’s corporations people can INVEST in, is just WRONG to me! It’s not solving crime. Like Dostevesky said: ‘If you want to understand a society, look into its prisons.’ If this is how we’re doing it, I don’t think I want to be a citizen.”

Video, dance, music and incendiary ensemble acting create multimedia theater with high-impact usually seen in cinema, like Goddard’s. Brian Squillace’s stark set in the basement of Xperimental Theatre creates a cellblock perfectly. Black guide-wires suggest bars, and a thin line between audience and orange-jumpsuit-clad actors. Local musicians perform an original score, marrying 1930’s German expressionist theatre composer Kurt Weil and alt-rock Kurt Cobain. They also stand in as guards at center-stage. You’re immediatly propelled behind prison walls in nonstop drama. Catterton is the perfect rendition of modern Beat artist, slim, well-read, provocative.

He talks of how his play “dives into a deep pool of prison literature”—19th century runaway slaves, literati Jack London and Genet, blues man Leadbelly, 1970s Attica prison riot poetry, Norman Mailer’s infamous protégé Jack Abbott.

“A great many people we aren’t aware of have spent time in prison and wrote about it from an artist’s perspective...Literature is beyond sensationalism, beyond shocking. Prisoners just want to be HEARD. That’s why I’m incorporating their texts into my show,” Catterton says.

Art made by Stillwater Prison inmates “opens” the play, exhibited outside the theater.

There were challenges to obtaining the art. “According to the art director at Stillwater, I’m supposed to refer to them as ‘offenders.’ That’s one thing that’s been tearing at my heart,” Catterton’s voice trembles momentarily before emphasizing, “I’m using this as an opportunity for ‘offenders’ to express themselves. I’m not censoring anything they want to say—but, of course, the institution has some censorship laws.

There’s talk that they might not even get their art back! Anything coming out of the prison might not be able to go back in—afraid we’d smuggle something in, I suppose. There’s an intense screening process that the art director there, Jennifer Jenson, has been very helpful with. So, the ‘civilians’ can see the art, have some refreshments and hear gospel music before the play.”

The first American late-1950’s production of “No Exit” Catterton says “bombed—a huge farce. Sartre was outraged that it was a send-up that people didn’t take seriously. I blame that on the bad translation.”

Catterton remedied this by contemporary re-translation that goes to the guts of individuals’ identities that are defined and ultimately exist only in relationship to other people. Catterton applies Sartre to prison life, observing “A prisoner’s not a prisoner without a guard, a guard’s not a guard without a prisoner. They both need the other to exist in this state.” A journalist I once interviewed who spent a year as a Sing Sing prison guard confirmed this dynamic.

The young actors are on FIRE. Interacting with each other and with video-performances of fragmented Selves or other characters, they pull no punches. Using unique movement called Celda, words become physical in what might be the most effective modern dance expression I’ve ever seen. The only discordant note is these actors are all-white, representing American prisoners which are mostly people of color. But, it’s quite possibly a deliberate “door” Catterton chose, to make white audiences relate to these ignored contradictions in American “democracy” and feel the realities of disconnection and isolation on both sides of the bars.

“John Abbott’s ‘Belly of the Beast”, a brilliant book, talks about spending a lot of time in solitary. Repeatedly beaten by eight guards, never seeing any light. When he’d get out, he’d be blinded by the abundance of color. The blue uniforms would be almost orgasmically irridescent, he’d been so deprived...If you take away all your experience, what are you?” Catterton asks.”If a person’s ESSENCE is all their experiences, if you take away experience so you just EXIST, doing nothing, are you anything? Abbott often asks. He thought imprisonment was making you nothing.”

“EXITNOEXIT” gets under your skin, expressing the loneliness, torn humanity, angry despair and ragged longings endured by 2 million prisoners—two-thirds incarcerated for non-violent drug-related offenses. Catterton’s disturbing mirror demands we face “the forgotten.” Did I mention, this is a STUDENT production? Many local pros should move over, as their entire season won’t come close to this unforgettable theater experience.

“Prisoners want to be heard. Just being deprived of communication and access from the outside world, it takes a LOT to be heard,” Catterton says. “That’s why prisoners riot! Attica prisoners took those hostages because they wanted Gov. [Nelson] Rockefeller to come down and HEAR them. It’s a common occurrence.”

EXITNOEXIT: FREE. Wed.-Sat. Feb. 25-29, 7:30 p.m.; Sat./Sun. 1:30 p.m., Xperiemental Theatre, basement Rarig Center West Bank, U of M, Minneapolis. Reservations encouraged 612-625-1876. Info: theexperimental@yahoo.com


  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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