Dante’s Purgatorio is a noisy, funny, thought-provoking, visual extravaganza that makes remarkable use of the entire Sir James Dunn Theatre in a Fountain School of Performing Arts show running through Saturday.
Stripped down to its black brick walls, the theatre becomes the frightening world of Purgatory as protagonist Dante and his companion, ancient poet Virgil, climb out of hell – a glowing red, smoking pit – to meet the unusual, amazingly-costumed, often frightening denizens sometimes representing different sins.
These creatures rise up out of pits, appear in upper balconies, dash through an invisible lower door and race in and out loudly on wheeled stairs. There’s both a deus ex machina quality and a simplicity to the moveable, architectural set with removable, orange, metal fences – often banged down in frustration.
American playwright and Arizona professor Patrick Baliani’s translation and adaptation of Dante’s epic poem, begun c. 1308 and completed in 1320 just a year before the Florentine writer died, is crisp and clear, contemporary but not overly so and quite humourous. (He gives a free master’s class,Adapting Dante’s Purgatory, Friday, 1 to 2 p.m., in Studio Two, Dal Arts Centre.)
Andrew Chen as the hot-blooded, driven Dante and Logan Robins as the cooler, rationalist Virgil are very good as they argue about philosophy and religion, play word games and encounter fantastic beings who sing, gamble, beg to be remembered to their living loved ones, tempt or torment them.
Dalhousie Acting Program instructor Margot Dionne’s exuberant direction suits her young actors who put their all into character creation and the rush of movement in this inbetween world on this one day — Easter Sunday – when Dante is 35.
Waiting at the top of the Mount Purgatory is Dante’s beloved, celestial Beatrice (Ky Fleming). Also in this strong cast are: Zilong Chen, Kaylin Dean, John Gilchrist,Katie Graham, Rebekah Leon, Stephanie Mah, Greg Mansour, Linda Meian, Meaghan Taverner and Emily Pratt.
The visuals, the sound, the creatures themselves, make for a chilling, unsetttling experience with lots of ghosts called “shades” envying Dante’s living body.
Dante’s Purgatorio features angels and ghosts in an amazing costume design. (Ken Kam)
“This play puts me in mind of such November celebrations as Allhallowtide (Halloween, All Saints’ Day,All Souls’ Day) and the Day of the Dead!,” the director writes in the program.
It’s like being inside a highly populated Brueghel painting and the stern, good and evil drama of Blake’s images thanks to lighting designer Bruce MacLennan, set and projection designer Karyn McCallum, sound designer/composer Alex Arnold and costume designer John Pennoyer, who has outdone himself with the aid of many student cutters and stitchers. (The angel’s wings alone are amazing.)
Today the Christian view of the world is less dominant than it was in the early 14th century. Dante’s world was heavily Christian and highly political; heaven and hell, good and evil were very real.
The highly detailed program helps in explaining Dante’s time, the poem and the director’s intentions. And this producation actually makes you want to read The Divine Comedy.
Dante’s Purgatorio runs through Saturday, 7:30p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee, at the Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre. Tickets available at the arts centre box office(902-494-3820/1-800-874-1669 or online at http://dal.ca/artscentre).