DANTE: INFERNOby Dante Alighieri
Translated by Mark-Brian Sonna
Adapted for stage by Alejandro de la Costa
Directed and Choreographed by Mark-Brian Sonna
Stage Manager/AD – Penny Johnson
Set and Costume Design – Alejandro de la Costa
Sound and Light Design – Mark-Brian Sonna
Music and Vocal Score – Mark-Brian Sonna
Dante’s Exit – A Bone Crone Drone by Sheila Chandra
Lighting Tech and Programming – J. Kyle Harris
J. Kyle Harris – Dante
Shawn Gann – Virgil
Ivan Jones – Minos, Ulysses, Evilclaw
Heath Billups – Ciacco, Simonist, Minion
Megan Duelm – Manto, Eviltail, Ugolino
Brian Eschete – Dis, Capaneus, Aldobrandi
Bronze C. Hill – Brunetto, Farinata, Boniface
Emily Rahm – Beatrice, Tree, Thais
Mark-Brian Sonna – Satan
Reviewed Performance: 10/19/2013
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Humanity is fascinated by the after-life. It may actually be the quintessential question in life. In the absence of facts we imagine our own vision, hence heaven and hell.
No one had more influence over what we imagine hell to be than Durante degli Alighieri, or Dante, who lived from 1265–1321 in northern Italy. La Comediais considered the greatest literary work in Italian and one of the most influential masterpieces of world literature. Since its publication in 1314 Inferno has been the picture of hell that’s spawned more artistic interpretations than any other literary work and defined hell for generations of Christians.
La Comediais not a treatise on heaven and hell but rather an allegory on Dante’s life. He’s both author and hero of his epic poem, trying to work out his own life questions. It’s a commentary on political strife in Florence which banished him on the threat of being burned alive. It’s a search for love, especially for Beatrice, his muse who died early in his life. And it’s a study on the veracity of Christianity and its claims about heaven and hell.
Dante imagined that hell had nine levels, each deeper into the earth, with numerous chambers to house different classes of sinners. The occupants of these rooms were famous people in history and sometimes local Italian enemies. Contemporary readers of course knew immediately who these people were. He had special condemnation for the clergy of Italy, including the first recorded mention of priestly pedophilia. But some were condemned to hell by the letter of church law and Dante questioned whether they should have been there. Dante seldom judged whether someone deserved to be in hell; most translators and commentators assumed they all deserved their fate.
Dante wrote La Comedia in the common lingua based on the regional dialect of Tuscany with elements of Latin. This became modern-day Italian because of his writing. Comedy was written in the common language because it wasn’t serious, while tragedy and academic works were written in classical Latin. In 2007, Mark-Brian Sonna unveiled his new translation of the work from the original Italian to create an adapted stage show, Dante: Inferno, playing again this year at The Cottage in Addison.
Sonna also directed the play and reprised his cameo as Satan. “It was an unplanned accident. I took the play to the Cottage and discovered I needed another actor for four minutes. So I played it myself. It’s the only acting nomination I ever received.”
The action of Dante: Inferno takes place in an impossibly small area. Sonna says, “I couldn’t see doing this on a large stage. It needs to be a small space.” This was a bit magical given the expanse of the story, but traveling around the small space and using boxes to create levels, the cast actually created the illusion of large distances.
Costumes were simple shorts, pants and shirt combinations, mostly black, that varied to create different character looks. By using drapes and loose coverings, Sonna was able to create one hundred characters and allow for costume changes in seconds.
Sonna’s staging created an impressionistic, minimalist setting for Dante: Inferno using simple drapes, a few minor props, colorful lighting changes and actors’ bodies as both set pieces and props. It was a highly choreographed piece with no room for improvisation. Actors under covers created fire and beasts and other strange creatures. When I say impressionistic, however, I don’t mean it was glossed over. It was explicit, bloody, gruesome, raw, and naked, and images were often disturbing – in a word, hellish – although mostly within the viewer’s mind.
Using only nine actors, this play looked to be a mass of humanity. Six actors played three major characters each, plus pieces and parts of many more, though it was hard to track exactly who played which minor roles.
Dante was played by J. Kyle Harris with perhaps a perfect mixture of naiveté, trepidation and courageous persistence. His visible projection of curiosity revealed Dante’s genuine search for the sinners’ stories. Harris combined curiosity with periodic looks of amusement, shock and horror, providing evidence of Dante dealing with his own doubts about hell. Dante is guided through hell by Virgil, of Rome, played by Shawn Gann. Gann, who had the bulk of the text in this play and most of the exposition, spoke clearly and powerfully so that the audience could understand the story line. It was a great directorial choice to not confound the text with accents, though there was a few powerful statements in Italian. Gann used a calming strong confidence to give Virgil an authority that protects Dante from the evil around them. The two were inseparable and paired well as actors.
The ensemble was so strong that it was difficult to pick out one from another, but each alone and in groups created visions of tormented souls suffering their own special horrors to atone for their own special sins. There were moments which stood out as especially gruesome, humorous or unique. One of the more remarkable sequences involved the ensemble in full black body suits with pure white featureless masks on the back of their heads. As sinners who had to live eternally looking backward, they played the scene backward while their arm and hand movements and body postures appeared to be playing fully forward.
Ivan Jones, the lone ensemble actor from the premier production, played many parts including Ulysses, Minos and Evilclaw. He also played unnamed creatures, parts of creatures and suffering sinners. Jones’ tall lithesome body created so many contortions I stopped counting. He could be ominous, dangerous, sad and comical at any point. His entry as one character in a white silky loin cloth and feathery white wings was memorable, but when he combined his Evilclaw character with Megan Duelm’s Eviltail, we saw them in batwings looking like the evil flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz, using a strange language, and playing the humor in the text as they delighted in torturing souls and then recoiled in pain as they were tortured because of it. It was one of the few actual laughs in the night.
Megan Duelm also played one of the most important sinners in the story, Ugolino, a mother who ate her children because of coercion by the government. Her story raised the biggest question for Dante about whether people in hell deserved to be there and Duelm’s palpable anguish pierced the audience as Ugolino confessed, “Hunger had more power than grief.” Considering his own questions about life, this quick moment stated the author’s theme better than any other.
Emily Rahm played Beatrice, the true love of Dante’s life who died early. She was his muse for life and it is she who Dante searches for on this journey. This is a bit of theatrical license by Sonna which gives an audience a cause for Dante’s search and motivation for Virgil’s task. Rahm created this sweet character moment in the opening, kissing and showing a moment of tenderness to Dante, and then pushing him on his way into hell. Her quiet demure persona contrasted with the starkly different evil characters she played the rest of the way, but in this moment we saw a foreshadow of what comes later in Purgatory and Paradise.
Finally, we come to the inner chamber in hell wherein Satan himself tortures the worst of the worst sinners. It was here that we saw Mark-Brian Sonna as the devil, replete with horns and wings, a bloody red body and the most evil eyes one sees in live theater. He said nothing. He just painted bloody upside-down crosses onto the naked sinners as they were being hanged. For four minutes Sonna showed us evil incarnate in the bowels of the bottomless pit. It was a simple scene filled with lasting imagery and meaning.
Dante: Infernowas a visually absorbing experience that engaged every fiber of one’s being. One cannot sit idly by in this place. It posed questions and didn’t answer them. It shocked and dismayed; it made everyone uncomfortable. After all it is hell! But those who could open their mind and look beyond shock to listen to the wonderfully musical poetry could hear the humor Dante wrote and, with that comedic encouragement, begin to doubt the surety with which most of us judge evil. Inferno was about the people in Dante’s world, some evil and clearly deserving punishment, but some unjustly punished and tainting the veracity of the whole system. This disturbed Dante. As Sonna wrote in the program notes, “…it proves Sartre right: ‘Hell is other people.’” Either way, the event was a whole body experience and I can caution only once:
“All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"
The Stone Cottage Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX, 75001
Plays through November 3rd
Wednesday – Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $17.00 - $25.00
For information and tickets visit http://www.mbsproductions.netor/ call 214-477-4942. You may also purchase tickets thirty minutes before curtain, if available.