“Hell is other people” has become such a snappy summing up of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 “No Exit,” you could easily forget that it’s just one line — and not the last one — spoken by a character in the play. If hell really is other people, why is Garcin so reluctant to leave Inez and Estelle behind when the locked door to the room they’ve been placed in opens? Could hell instead be solitary confinement? And who’s to say hell is where the three of them actually are? For all that it’s set in a closed room, Sartre’s play is an open-ended look at the human condition, and Boston Conservatory faculty member Andy Vores’s 90-minute chamber opera gives it an unsettling added dimension. Guerilla Opera staged the premiere of Vores’s work in 2008; now “No Exit” is getting a new production, directed by Nathan Troup, at Boston Conservatory’s Zack Box.
Vores has said that he had to cut Sartre’s original text down to a third. He did an exceptional job; it feels as if at least half the original is present, and nothing critical has been omitted. The quartet of singers (the Valet shows Garcin, Inez, and Estelle into the room and leaves them there) is matched by a quartet of instrumentalists: tenor sax, viola, cello, and percussion.
The new production is unremittingly monochromatic. Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set comprises a gray divan, two gray chairs, and a black door with a window, all on rollers. Lara De Bruijn has put Garcin in a gray smock and trousers (with a gray shirt underneath), Inez in a plain knee-length gray dress and gray stockings, and Estelle in a plain floor-length gray dress. Sartre’s hell is at least colorful; this is “No Exit” Shaker style. And Daniel Chapman’s muted lighting allows the unholy three to hide from one another as well as from the audience.
There is, however, no hiding the trio’s talents as singers and actors. Jonas Budris is a jittery, hangdog Garcin, more boyish than Sartre’s concept, with a tenor that can really float, as it does on “The air stinks of men and cigar smoke.” Christina English is a scornful, smirking, ultimately hungry Inez as she stalks Estelle while despising Garcin; Aliana de la Guardia is a flirty, cheerful, ditsy Estelle who’s equally hungry for Garcin. Jonathan Nussman brings a stentorian voice and an implacable demeanor to the Valet.
Vores supports his mostly recitative-like vocal lines with claustrophobic orchestral ostinatos that, curling back on themselves, augur the repetition that’s in store for Garcin, Inez, and Estelle over the next few thousand years. The accompaniment starts out spare and builds in angst. Kent O’Doherty’s tenor sax burbles and honks; Gabriela Diaz’s viola and Nicole Cariglia’s cello prowl and insinuate; Mike Williams’s percussion array ranges from snare drum (for Garcin’s execution) to woodblock and Chinese opera gong. A long-held pitch underlines the boredom that ensues when the trio decide not to talk to one another. Occasionally the music gets in the way of the singers’ intelligibility. But nothing can stop Budris, English, and de la Guardia from intimating that hell might be a place of our own making.