The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but for director Aaron Polk and the Twin City Theatre Company, the road to No Exit, has been laden with surprises. The biggest of which is the fact that Polk, himself an actor, was called upon to step into the role of Cradeau when the lead male actor withdrew from the production mere weeks before opening night. But more about that in a minute. Let's start at the beginning, shall we. 

It all started back in 2018 during the tear-down of Twin City Theatre Company's production of Deathtrap. Deathtrap required a complex set that presented significant challenges to the SoDo's theatre's space. When I recently spoke with Polk, he remembers it was here that the question of what to do next first arose.  "I had said that our next production should be something that doesn't have all of this `crap.' Our lighting guy is a big fan of existentialist plays and he said 'No Exit has three characters and one room." While these attributes did appeal to Polk, particularly after Deathtrap, he laughed it off.  But the idea haunted him until he finally gave No Exit serious consideration. 

As a playwright, Polk has always been enamored by the No Exit's composition, its perfect structure.  He calls the work "musical" and even "symphonic," noting that its crescendos and decrescendos are theatrical, both on intellectually and emotionally. He also found the play's core, its ageless existential questions, to be more relevant than ever. 

The line "Hell is other people" has become a well-worn trope, permeating everything from Goth culture to game shows, often with little to no context.  When I asked Polk about the challenge of taking on such a fraught and often misunderstood theme, he observed that there is a big difference between `Hell is other people' and `Other people are Hell.' " This notion of seeing ourselves reflected through the eyes of others is both timeless and timely. 

So then Polk and the TCTC embarked upon the pre-production process.  Casting yielded its own series of surprises. Beginning as a four-person cast of characters, the play boils down to the three leads after the first 16 pages. The opportunity to direct two female leads was new territory for Polk. Prior to directing Deathtrap in 2018, Polk had taken an eight-year hiatus to focus on work and family. Preparing for No Exit was in itself an `a-ha moment' for the director, who came to realize that most of his previous projects had been "male-centric."  Not only was Polk learning how to direct women in a new and deeper way, he was doing so with much younger actors than he had previously worked with, and doing so within a far different cultural climate.  

Decisions about everything from blocking to directing hand gestures required more measured thought and sensitivity.  Polk not only rose to the challenge but found himself grateful for it. When I asked him what he was most excited for the audience to see, he didn't even hesitate for a second.  "It's the cast."  After working with a fairly regular group of actors, Polk was surprised to have found himself casting four people he had never worked with before. Though this required adapting the kind of familiar shorthand he'd relied on in the past, Polk was surprised by the talent of this young cast. He calls Antonella Ortiz, who plays Estella, a complete "natural."

Well, that brings us full circle right back to the biggest surprise of all—how to recast the role of Cradeau. It's worth noting here that unlike other that of other local productions, TCTC's rehearsal schedule is a tight one. When No Exit lost its initial male lead, the board and the cast doubted whether a recast would even be possible. Faced with a possible cancellation, the TCTC board asked Polk if he would consider taking on the role himself.  As Polk puts it, he "hemmed and hawed for a long time." To begin with, he hadn't acted in over nine years, and when he had, he was a self-proclaimed "overbearing actor."  He biggest concern was that the production would be viewed as a vanity project. 

But after sharing his concerns with the board, the cast, and the crew, Polk agreed to the role. He says it is a testament to the bond and open lines of communications amongst the cast that they trusted him to do right by the role and by them. And then the real surprise happened. Or, in my mind, the more interesting one. Stepping into Cradeau's shoes significantly transformed Polk's understanding of the play's central question: "Can you judge another person's life by one act?" This becomes a much more interesting question in 2019, when almost all of our actions are photographed or otherwise recorded for digital posterity. 

For Polk, No Exit, and the road to it thus far can be distilled down to this: "if you see yourself in the eyes of others are you still proud of yourself?" He is beyond grateful for how the cast and crew have stepped up to bring this production together. As Polk tells it, they have truly manifested another immortal bit of philosophical wisdom: "Be excellent to each other."

Polk is a bit older than the previously-cast Cradeau, so there was that to negotiate, but though he didn't sign on for this dual role, there's no doubt that the challenge has reaped its rewards.  For this and so many more reasons, this is clearly a must-see production. No Exit poses the big, deep questions we need right now and this resilient cast is ready to tackle them head-on. 

No Exit
So Do Theatre
111 S Walnut, Champaign
September 27th, 28th, October 4th, 5th 6th, 7:30 p.m.
September 29th, 2 p.m. 
Get tickets online

Cover image from Twin City Theatre Company's Facebook event page