It was a pity that this production felt the toasty breath of the Times, some of whose reviewers haven't quite got the hang of things Off-Off-Broadway. True, there were elements to disparage; but there were moments of beauty, too, as well as simple thrills and chills that it would be churlish to deny.
The first act took some getting used to. It was hard to take the theatrical literalism of demons and damned in a settting that Dante painted inside his readers' minds. Bill Conte's translation, with its aggressive anachronisms, didn't make things easier. ("I love this job!" growls Charon [Wolfen de Kastro], then turns to his charges and calls them "misbegotten lumps of pus.")
But by the second act, the show got in a groove, and these breaks became comic relief. Many of the cast had good moments: the aforementioned Mr. de Kastro, as Charon and others; the remarkably physical George Roberson (who should now work on bringing his vocal technique up to a par with his movement); Kevin Clayborn, as Mohammed and other lost souls; James McCarthy, as the Demon Emcee, and Jay Cavanaugh, Michelle Melland, Frank Nigro, Jalel Sager, Douglas Stone, and Jim Williams, in various roles. Ivan Espeche and Joseph Smith interpreted the roles of Dante and Virgil, respectively: the former earnestly, the latter with some classical technique.
Sometimes the ensemble came across as believable and touching, especially in the Ninth Circle, whose inhabitants were locked in ice (represented by polyethylene), and in Bolgia 7 of the Eighth Circle, whose thieves were condemned to continually merge one with another, which they did smoothly and eerily. These moments seemed to occur when the actors plumbed the depths of their text and found nuggets of simple humanity. Some understated moments, necessary counterweights to the hysterical overkill of the damned, came in the "metanarratives," scenes of life back home among the damned-to-be.
With or without serious support from the nonprofit sector, it was clear that the special effects, costumes, and set owed more to imagination and effort than to the magical power of capital. (A fog machine and more imaginative use of lights -- such as embedding them in the set, and keeping them less bright -- would have been effective.) When the nonhuman elements worked, as in the plastic ice mentioned above, and the heads chewing up bodies in the torture of the Schismatics, they worked very well. (Not to mention the huge claws in the cavern at the base of the mountain of Purgatory!)
All in all, an entertaining attack on a foredoomed artistic goal. (Also featuring Assjack, Erin Barry, Elizabeth Craynon, Melissa Kite, Darby Jared Leigh, Lissa Moira, Anthony Mondella, Rebecca Thomas, and Minerva Vier. Music and soundscape by Tolve; choreography, Kriota Willberg; set design, Keith Beck; puppet machinae, Randy Carfagno; lighting design, Gregory P. de Respino; costumes, Carol Brys and Munee Hayes; video graphics, Jeremy Slater; makeup, Valdet Bajraktari; colors and fluids, Tammy Sue Green; special effects, Craig Mason; video montage, Industrial Television.)
Lighting: 1/Sound: 2
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Copyright 1998 John Chatterton