Three freshly dead sinners are each trapped in a personal hell: The vain Estelle finds herself in a space filled with old, unflattering baby photos. Tough lesbian Inez is stuck in a sweet little girl’s room—painted pink and filled with stuffed animals—that she promptly begins to trash. “Any last words?” she asks a teddy bear before hanging it with a hair ribbon. And Dr. Joseph Garcin has managed to find a single cigarette—and must spend all eternity unable to light it. But the worst is yet to come: The three will eventually be led to a small room, unable to sleep or leave, with only uncomfortable furniture, a few odd decorations, and each other.
“I guess you could say it was a happy accident,” says Kelley Slagle, 30, of the creation of her theater company, Cavegirl Productions, and its premiere play, Ellipsis. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in the theater,” she says, “but life distracted me for the last 10 years.”
In October 2000, Slagle—who by day works as a Web developer for National Public Radio—began acting with the Laurel, Md., community theater troupe Rude Mechanicals. “I was actually in rehearsals for Twelfth Night when I got the bright idea to do No Exit,” she says, referring to the one-act written by the late French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. “It’s been one of my favorite plays since I read it in high school. I thought it would be fairly easy to produce—short rehearsal, a small cast—but it became a monster!”
Slagle ran into trouble when she decided that she wanted to alter some of the language of the play, originally penned in 1944. “I found out that if I changed a single word, it could not legally be performed as No Exit,” she says. Through an Internet search, Slagle located a Miami director who had staged an adaptation of No Exit called Welcome to Hell, and she asked him for advice on how to modernize the play. “He basically told me he had to rewrite the whole thing,” she says.
Still determined to produce some sort of No Exit, Slagle, along with friend Ernest Leo III, created an adaptation. “I basically hogtied Leo, and we did it in a month and a half—it wasn’t finished until the week before the first rehearsal,” says Slagle. “We tried to make it modern without going completely off-track.” Though Ellipsis remains true to Sartre’s proposition that hell is the company of others, “The Girl From Ipanema,” expletives, and even everyone’s most hated purple dinosaur, Barney, find their way into Slagle’s production.
The experience of creating Ellipsis—which debuted in February at D.C.’s Metro Cafe and has its final show March 15 at the Greenbelt Arts Center—is what inspired the Beltsville, Md., resident to found Cavegirl Productions. (Cavegirl is Slagle’s longtime nickname, based on a disturbing facial contortion she does to entertain friends.) “Cavegirl was born halfway through the Ellipsis experience,” she says. “I wanted to continue to produce provocative, short, small-cast plays with mobile sets.”
Although Slagle advertised for open auditions, about half of the people who came out were current or former members of Rude Mechanicals. But being among friends helped make her directorial debut a success. “I had a lot of fun meticulously directing the show, to its tiniest details,” she says. “I was fortunate to have some wonderful cast members who brought all kinds of nuances to their portrayals.”
Next up for Cavegirl is a late-summer adaptation of Closet Land, a 1991 film about political torture. “It deals with Big Brother and government control,” says Slagle. She envisions her version of Closet Land being, like Ellipsis, relatively short, no longer than “an hour and a half—two hours tops.” “I like the idea of short one-act stories; it’s like watching a really intense, good movie,” she says. “People often appreciate it more than really long drama with three intermissions.” —Sarah Godfrey
For more information, visit www.cavegirl.com.