The year, roughly speaking, is 1300; the city, definitely Rome. An ambitious political exile from Florence, stripped of everything he ever owned or hoped to achieve, stews in the Eternal City disgusted with the civil wars and political infighting around him. All he has to his name is a solid classical education and a gift for writing poetry in the language of the streets--Italian. Finding himself with a lot of time on his hands, Dante Alighieri nurses his pain and his burning desire for revenge, and converts them into nothing less than a classic of World Literature.
Dante's 'Divine Comedy,' conceived as a kind of play in verse, spans three realms of the afterlife: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. But given his tortured state of mind it is perhaps no surprise that the most vivid and delicious part of the trilogy is its first installment, "Inferno," where he gleefully subjects his enemies, lay and clergy alike, to the tortures of the damned in language that careers from the ecstatic to the profane.
There were no theaters per se in Italy in the 1300's; instead, the fashion of the time called for plays to be a combination of narrative and dialogue stitched together for solo performance at private soirées. How fitting that Washington Stage Guild's Artistic Director, Bill Largess, would conceive of adapting Dante's Inferno as a one-man show. It's hard to think of a more appropriate entertainment for the Lenten season, and a more fascinating tour of the late Medieval mind on the cusp of the Renaissance. The Washington Stage Guild have created a charming, engaging evening of theater based on one of the world's most beloved poetic works.
Largess takes us on a grand tour of the Dark Side, assuming the personae of characters by turns mythical and terrifyingly real. Originally performed as a relatively low-tech, off-night extra over a decade ago the show has grown impressively under the direction of Laura Gianarelli. Largess's storytelling gifts now benefit from a panoply of special effects-Frank DiSalvo Jr.'s sound and voice technology, Marianne Meadows' intricate lighting, and Clay Tuenis' projections. The mood is also set from the git-go through Kirk Kristlibas' truly creepy set, complete with satanic pentagram and Tarot cards suspended ominously upside-down to symbolize the horrific fate of the people we are about to meet.
In addition to changes of voice, gesture, posture, etc., Gianarelli has Largess incorporate occasional bits of puppetry, which provide a welcome visual break from the solemn pilgrim in liturgical robes we see before us. And for those who truly hate PowerPoint (our name is Legion) you will be pleased to know that this noxious plague of the boardroom and classroom has found its natural home in Hell's lowest depths.
Given its hour-and-a-half running time it can be a challenge for a single performer to keep the audience engaged. Dante's poetry and imagery are rich, so rich that it can be hard to choose which characters to include and which to set aside. So although Largess succeeds for the most part in creating distinct, engaging characters it is inevitable that some of them are less memorable and less attention-grabbing than others. A few edits here and there might make for a more consistently engaging evening, but rest assured this is (as Largess himself puts it) one Hell of a story, and well worth a look.
Performances of Dante's Inferno are at the Undercroft Theatre, in the basement of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachussetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. For tickets and directions call 240-582-0050, or at the Washington Stage Guild website: