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Dante’s Inferno

nytheatre.com review by Jane Titus
June 8, 2013

Dante’s Inferno

Publicity image for Dante's Inferno

I was excited to see that Submerge was adapting Dante’s Inferno to the stage. It is an ambitious project but one very much worthy of undertaking. The Inferno is a crucial piece of literature in the Western European tradition.  The imagery and cosmography in the poem pervade our society in ways that are profound and beyond our consciousness.  Our classical view of the Christian universe is based upon Dante and Milton.  So to examine this work and bring it alive on stage for a modern audience is a laudable undertaking.

My knowledge of the poem started in Freshman Humanities and has continued throughout my life time.  Every Maundy Thursday a number of Cantos are read at St. John the Divine. I attend every few years.  I was happy to see that Michael Feld (Sound Designer, Director, Producer) chose to use Dorothy Sayer’s translation. Her work has withstood the test of time. Very few of the translations from the early twentieth century are as clear to the modern ear as hers.  I was intrigued to see that some of Clive James’ recent translation would be used as well.  I had not heard his translation yet. I am not certain where his passages were used exactly, but there were times when the language took off in a very contemporaneous way.  I assume that was Mr. James’ work.

To perform such an epic work as The Inferno has some inherent challenges.  Basically the entire plot of the work is Dante and Virgil descending through the 9 rings of Hell to the center, meeting Satan and then emerging out the other side. This is a bit problematic as a dramatic structure as there is no variation or surprise until the very end of the journey.  Michael Feld chose to bestow upon the audience the role of Dante Alighieri which I found to be a strong and entertaining choice.  The actor playing Virgil, Rowan Magee had an appealing presence and brought ease and clarity to some rather convoluted language.  The rest of the company was comprised of actors and puppeteers.  They were dedicated to their work and committed well.  It is hard to single out any one performance as most of the time the company served as a chorus and worked seamlessly as a unit. 

The staging of the piece was very simple which does give the imagination wings. We had the now accepted convention of the two sound designers on stage with their Macs, a projection screen on the back wall and simple blocks that were moved as needed by the company.  The staging flowed from one scene to another very well.  The choreographer, Mandy Hackman worked well with her company and the performers were clear in their execution of her work.  The sound was rich and varied.  The projections on the screen on the back wall by Kevin Brouder worked well for the most part and helped establish a resonance to modern life.  It was interesting to see which images they chose to juxtapose on what part of the journey they were portraying. The puppets, designed by Chris Palmieri and Eryn Malfronte helped heighten the whole journey.  Dante and Virgil meet many fantastic creatures along the way and the puppets took the story that extra step into the mystical.   I have been fond of the Bunraku school of puppetry and I was happy to see the company perform with the puppets this way.  There are some particularly successful birds and an ominous larger than life figure as well that added a great deal to the journey.

Dante’s epic takes place in 34 cantos through 9 rings of Hell. This production was only an hour long, so the piece had to be cut almost to abstraction.  That could work well for us – but it is a very difficult undertaking.  The piece culminates in the vision of Satan trapped in the very center of Inferno. As a piece, it builds to the climatic reveal of Satan.  In this adaptation, we were not presented with the image of Satan at all, just the denouement afterwards.  As the poem is about sin and the renunciation of sin, to short us on the presentation of Satan does not seem fair.  One of the difficulties of The Inferno is that it is a Renaissance view of the universe that is adamantly Christian.  Our modern sensibility shies away from some of the absolutism in the presentation of sin.  Some of that fundamental Catholicism was ameliorated. I think to do justice to Dante’s creation, you must lean into the Christianity of the piece.  The poem was written a good 200 years before the Reformation.  Dante has his own opinions about the Catholic Church that peek through his work.  He is not without his own skepticism about the religious world view.  I think partially because the Catholicism of the piece and its presentation of sin was played down a bit, the humor of the piece did not come through.  And I think it is important to remember that The Inferno is part of a trilogy called The Divine Comedy.

And as the monotony of one ring of Hell after another is the way the story unfolds, contrast and surprise need to be developed in the piece. I would encourage the company in any further iterations of this piece to develop this aspect of the performance. Adding shifts of energy and tone will truly help build to the climatic denouement at the end of the piece.  Clarity and definition regarding their journey through each ring would help in the viewing of the piece.

That being said, the company performed a difficult piece with dedication and verve.  Bravo to all!