Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The source of Stanbary's adaptation is the English translation from the Italian by poet and etymologist John Ciardi. Since Ciardi's translation was completed in 1954, there have been a startling forty-seven additional published English translations of the epic, either as a standalone work or as part of the complete "Divine Comedy," including two published as recently as 2022. This demonstrates the continued fascination with the work and speculation about its meaning. It is no wonder that Open Window found in "Inferno" a robust basis for a new play that would galvanize its audience with stagecraft while furthering its mission.
Dante's structure in "The Divine Comedy" was to name the central character for himself and cast him as an "everyman." It begins on Maundy Thursday, the evening before Good Friday, in the year 1300. Dante would have been thirty-five years old, a man halfway through the biblically referenced lifespan of seventy years. He finds himself lost in the hollow of a dark wood and strives to reach higher ground in order to get a view of the terrain and find his bearings, but he is blocked by three beasts: a leopard, a lion and a wolf. They drive Dante back, and he despairs of being now lost in even lower ground than when he began.
As dawn rises on Good Friday, a man appears, identifying himself as Virgil, the ancient Roman poet, dead some 1,300 years. He has come to guide Dante on his journey. Dante is reluctant until Virgil says that he was summoned by Beatrice. In Dante's own autobiography, written before "Inferno," he names Beatrice, who he met at age nine, as his first and enduing, though never requited, love. Thus, Dante draws nodes of his own life history into his fictional epic journey. In fact, Beatrice appears as a character near the end of "Purgatorio" and takes over as Dante's guide in "Paradiso."
Dante follows Virgil through the gates of Hell into an antechamber, province of "the uncommitted," who in life did not make a decision to serve either good or evil, and in remaining undecided failed to fulfill their purpose on Earth. From here, Virgil and Dante are ferried across the River Acheron and reach Hell itself. Virgil takes Dante ever downward, descending the nine circles of Hell, each imprisoning those who committed sins deemed even worse than those who came before, and made to suffer a more painful time in eternity. Along the way, the text inserts numerous characters from history and recent times, including some from the Catholic Church itself, whom Dante (as author) considered to be deserving of a place in one of these nine terrible stations. These provide illustrations of the sins using figures that would be well known to Dante's readers, in some cases casting judgement upon recently lived public figures. For today's audiences, however, without detailed annotation, much of that meaning is lost.
José Sabillón and Cameron Varner give spectacular performances as Dante and Virgil, respectively. Sabillón captures Dante's initial innocence, and the mix of terror and awe with which he sees and describes horror upon horror upon horror. Even as he reflexively shrinks from these horrors, Sabillón endows Dante with a courage to persevere on his unbidden journey. Varner creates a stoic and serene Virgil, girded by the confidence of his past experience in travelling this route, and in God's protection of the mission to which he is charged. The other six cast members assume an ever-changing host of roles, sometimes as named individuals Dante and Virgil encounter, and often as nameless sinners suffering for offenses committed in life. It is impossible, due to the enveloping costuming and lighting, to single any out, but I can say that they all perform beautifully throughout the show.
All of the roles would seem to be physically exhausting, in large part due to a physical production that is far beyond the scope of anything I have previously seen at Open Window and, frankly, would be ambitious for any but the largest of our regional theaters. A large revolving ring, forming crags and valleys to represent the terrain over which Dante and Virgil trek, occupies the stage. The two lead actors are in almost continuous motion, hiking up and down treacherous ground. A braided tree trunk on one side of the audience and a craned wooden arch on the other side provide additional platforms for staging scenes. The entire design team–Robin McIntyre on sets, Robert Graff on costumes, Kurt Larson on sound and music, Sue Berger on lights, and Nate Farley on props–have done phenomenal work. The fluid coordination of all of these elements and the movement of the actors on this complex setting reflect the excellence of Jeremy Stanbary's direction.
For all that is right with the production, Dante's Inferno has a serious problem: a great deal of the play is taken up by Dante or Virgil describing at great length the degradation and eternal torture they witness, as well as consideration of the purpose of their journey. The staging allows us to see some of this, but only a small portion, leaving a great deal as spoken exposition. As eloquent as Ciardi's translated dialog is, as the speeches become lengthier, and with nothing visible on stage with which to connect the descriptions, it is often difficult to hang on to the long strings of words.
Also, much as I applaud the stunning set, the movement of actors and rotation of the set itself sometimes impedes fully grasping every word, and at times briefly obscures sightlines as well. The sense of what Dante is experiencing as his descent continues is never lost, but on occasion the precise nature of each experience and its associated meaning is. This has nothing to do with production sound quality or the actors' ability to project and enunciate, which they do remarkably well, but is a function of the type of tale being told and the limits on what can reasonably be depicted on stage as opposed to merely described.
That caveat aside, Jeremy Stanbary has taken a seminal, albeit very difficult, work and, with a hugely talented creative team and a pair of outstanding lead actors, created a play well worth seeing. It probably would help, unless you are a scholar in the field, to bone up on your Dante before attending. For any who adhere to the beliefs regarding sin and redemption at the core of Dante's work, I expect there is much here to affirm those life views. For those who adhere to different beliefs, the staging, lead performances, and poetry of the language–even when it is difficult to hang on to–are affirming as well, testimony of the power of theatre artistry created collaboratively and mounted with utmost skill and passion.
Dante's Inferno runs through October 29, 2023, at Open Window Theatre, 5300 S Robert Trail, Inver Grove Heights MN. For tickets and information, please visit openwindowtheatre.org.
Playwright: Stage Adaptation by Jeremy Stanbary from the translation by John Ciardi; Director, Sound Design, Video Graphics Design: Jeremy Stanbary; Assistant Director: Katelyn Slater; Set Design, Scenic Artist: Robin McIntyre; Costume Design: Robert Graff; Lighting Design: Sue Berger; Props Design, Assistant Scenic Artist: Nate Farley; Stage Manager: Abby Slater: Assistant Stage Manager: Renée Sellner; Producer: Jeremy Stanbary; Soundscape Design and Performance: Kurt Larson.
Cast: Jared Beebe (ensemble), Lily Blando (ensemble), Tom Burr (ensemble), Brandon Herring (ensemble), Eleanor Koop (ensemble), José Sabillón (Dante), Sam Sweere (ensemble), Cameron Varner (Virgil).