- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2001

Dantes "The Divine Comedy" does not cry out to appear on the stage, at least on first appearance. It is an exploration of metaphysics, morality and other intangibles.
While most plays begin with plot and characterization and weave the philosophy throughout their length, "The Divine Comedy" is Dantes view of the universe explained through poetry. Dante described the two states where souls arrive at their destinies, hell and heaven, as well as purgatory, the "middle place" where souls are brought to perfection before entering heaven.
The Washington Stage Guild sticks to the first third of "The Divine Comedy," the "Inferno," in its production. This was a wise move, and not just because it offers a reviewer some choice one-liners. ("Its a devil of an evening.") The "Inferno" is the best-known part of "The Divine Comedy," with its luminous descriptions of the damned and their suffering.
Bill Largess, a founding member of the Washington Stage Guild and a faculty member at Catholic University, plays the Pilgrim, who travels down into the depths of hell and tells us what he sees on the way. As the only actor onstage, Mr. Largess enacts the conversations involving Dante; his guide, Virgil; and the demons, the damned and various other creatures. Mr. Largess relishes his material, and he does a commendable job in condensing and adapting the poem to the stage.
That being said, he is also aware of the larger problems in presenting the "Inferno" to a modern audience, the biggest of which is the loss of a sense of sin. Carnality, heresy and blasphemy — much less flattery or pandering — dont seem all that bad to most people nowadays. Mr. Largess makes some stabs at humor to lighten the mood, but most of them have a contrived feeling. At moments, he sounds like a surprised tourist rather than a man observing eternal torment.
Much of the "Inferno" depends on the audience understanding the intellectual points Dante is trying to make. One example: Against the bulk of thinkers in Christian history (although by no means all of them), Dante places the "virtuous unbaptized" souls in the outermost circle of hell, called limbo.
Although they led good earthly lives and endure no pain, they cannot enter heaven because they never were baptized. One can doubt this interpretation — many unbaptized people were (and are) venerated as saints, including the Holy Innocents slain by Herod after Christs birth and the Good Thief, who perished next to Christ at the Crucifixion.
Members of Dantes original audience, who clamored to see his manuscript upon its completion, would have understood his line of reasoning because they shared his rich cultural heritage. This (along with the language difference) may explain why Chaucers "Canterbury Tales" is so much more popular in the English-speaking world — and why it lends itself to the stage much more readily than "The Divine Comedy." Not everyone may understand the nuances of Christian thought, but licentiousness and flatulence jokes are universal.
Another challenge is that many of the characters are from 14th-century northern Italian politics. Mr. Largess tries his best to pre- sent these things in a palatable manner. Some of the best moments in the play are in the more obscure passages, such as the description of Count Ugolino gnawing at the back of Archbishop Ruggieris head. (Dont ask — its complicated.) However, the play — especially the beginning and the end — is more of a dramatic reading than an enactment of what Dante describes.
The set by Greg Mitchell is populated with random pieces of junk, probably from "American Buffalo," which the Source Theatre is staging (the two share quarters). The set lacks focus and unity, although the sides of the "mountain" are used to good effect.
Better is Brian D. Keatings sound, which provides a great deal of atmosphere, whether through muted moans or the icy winds at the epicenter of hell itself.
Perhaps a lone actor was not the best way to show the "Inferno." Unlike John Bunyans "Pilgrims Progress," Dantes Pilgrim never travels alone; he is always with Virgil or Beatrice, who explain the sufferings and blessings along the way. Indeed, very little happens in hell, as Dante portrays it; the action, such as it is, consists of conversations and observations of the everyday life of the damned. Although it does throw off a good bit of heat, this "Inferno" is still a bit underdone.
Dantes original audience would have understood his reasoning because of shared heritage.

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