Hell hath no water break for Bill Largess, whose one-man Dante’s Inferno sears through Dante’s underworld in 90 minutes. Exercising a mnemonic that would impress Homer, Largess escorts audiences through literature’s most hallowed vision of hell. He hits the highlights, and a delightfully gruesome sound design complements his reverent recitation. However, an under-indulged impulse for imaginative characterization leaves some of the world’s most famous sinners hanging in dramatic limbo in this otherwise well-studied staging of a literary classic.
In this beginning third of Dante’s epic commedia, the Roman poet Virgil guides his fourteenth-century countryman through the most unsavory sections of the hereafter. There, he meets mythical celebrities including Teiresias and Minos, as well as some surprises from his native Florence. These sufferers languish in torments proportional to the severity of their crimes, which include universal wrongs like adultery and murder, and also more medieval no-no’s such as simony and being born before Christ. Concentrating on the text of the poem, this adaptation relies on Largess’ adroit characterizations rather than visual spectacle to convey the terrors of these punishments.
As adapter, Largess is right to focus his edit on Dante’s encounters with these poor souls, rather than its intricate descriptions of Hell’s geography. This technique divides the poem neatly into a series of vignettes, each showcasing a new sinner. As performer, however, Largess tempts audiences with cruel peeks at a yet-unrealized revue of clever impressions.
It’s great fun to watch Largess take on this wide range of characters, but some have much more life than others. This is a particular danger to one-man shows with many characters: each portrayal is in direct competition with its neighbors. Excellence in one segment reveals the performer’s best, while simultaneously threatening subsequent disappointment. This is Inferno‘s chief torment: Largess sets the bar high at the beginning of the show, and though he meets his own standards in the end, the middle sags.
With the aid of only an oar, Largess shines early as Charon, the ghastly ferryman of the Styx. In hell’s icy lowest circle, he is chilling as Ugolino, frozen in a rigid silhouette and gnawing at an enemy’s skull. The intervening personalities between these high points, however, are almost interchangeable in their ambiguity. The sinners whine with a near-identical whimper, and an overeager reverb effect renders all Satan’s minions indistinguishable. There’s a solution to this problem already onstage: a marionette and a mask associate striking imagery with two minor characters. Used cleverly, a few more simple props from the set’s two toy chests, as well as stronger physical and vocal choices, would help to guide the show’s many characters all to the level of animation we have already seen Largess accomplish.
Washington Stage Guild, enjoying their third year in The Undercroft Theatre at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, promise “smart theatre for a smart town,” and Inferno has definitely done its homework. Kirk Kristlibas’ set is a dissertation on the occult. Nine giant tarot cards, each chosen to represent one of hell’s nine circles, hang over a circular dais inscribed with a blacklit pentagram and an excerpt of the original poem translatable to “This has been willed where what is willed must be.”
Closes March 17, 2013
900 Massachusetts Ave. NW
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $40 – $50
Thursdays thru Sundays
An evocative sound design by Frank DiSalvo, Jr. complements this text-centered approach with morbid relish, suggesting bodies bobbing in bubbling pitch, the crunch of breaking bone, and searing flames, among others, at well-timed points in the poetry.
With these well-chosen technical touches, Washington Stage Guild has set the stage for an enjoyable evening in hell. With its sparse staging and tight focus on a single performer, however, a balanced production of this text demands quick changes from its actor, or the numerous monologues in quotation become confusing. At present, the worthy challenge of presenting a zealously-memorized faithful edit of the poem appears to take almost all the performance’s attention, obscuring the ready possibility of innovative accents which would aid the ultimate goal while helping the show stay as dramatic as it is academic.
Dante’s Inferno by Dante Alighieri . Adapted and Performed by Bill Largess . Directed by Laura Giannarelli . Produced by Washington Stage Guild . Reviewed by Robert Duffley