Theater review: Dante’s ‘Inferno’ by Washington Stage Guild

C. Stanley Photography - Bill Largess in the production of “Inferno” at Washington Stage Guild.

How in the H-E-double hockey sticks can you act out Dante’s “Inferno”?

For the one-man adaptation with the Washington Stage Guild, Bill Largess takes a reverent approach. He cleaves to the 14th-century poem like a monk to his prayers, and he performs it in a church.

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The nine circles of Hell are elaborately, grotesquely detailed in Dante’s literary masterpiece, which makes the show a 90 minute mouthful. Luckily, Largess is a dexterous speaker, having sharpened his tongue on the brainy plays of George Bernard Shaw for years, and the voyage quickly comes to life in his animated telling.

“I had not thought death had undone so many,” Largess murmurs about the snaking train of suffering souls his character spies in the netherworld, and there is enough awe in the delivery that you picture the agonized lines of the damned.

To help translate Dante from the page to the stage, Largess and director Laura Giannarelli do not resist the temptation of technological help. This is mostly a blessing, with only a few slips into sin. Giannarelli keeps Largess moving in the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church’s intimate Undercroft Theatre, which is richly atmospheric, thanks to low flickering lights by Marianne Meadows and a dense murmuring soundscape by Frank DiSalvo Jr. The churn and burn of Hell feels ever-present.

The niftiest tech trick is a simple one. Largess, dressed in clerical robes, is outfitted with a discrete microphone that allows for otherworldly vocal processing. Beatrice, Dante’s revered love object, speaks with a sweet but weirdly distorted gurgle. Charon and other figures sound monstrous, with Largess’s voice becoming an electronic growl. The effects work, and they aren’t overused.

Eventually, though, you might feel as if Largess has to compete with the consistently kaleidoscopic lights, the droning underscoring and even the dense material itself, which is not exactly a theatrical slam dunk. The episodic road trip requires a ton of description — that’s the bulk of the writing — enlivened by intervals of characterization and reenactment. In the best of conditions (and these conditions are good), a solo performance of Dante’s poem demands a patient audience.

Of course, the Stage Guild crowd will expect to be led through perdition circle by circle in this brisk, yet composed, literary manner. (This audience probably doesn’t intersect much with buffs of “Dante’s Inferno,” the video game, rated M for mature.)

Kris Kristlibas decorates the small stage with oversize Tarot cards. Largess and Giannarelli forge the script, their own adaptation based on multiple sources and Giannarelli’s translation, with energetic language and comic relief, which includes (spoiler alert) an excellent gag about PowerPoint. That screen, those slides — that’s when you know you’re in Hell.

Dante’s Inferno

adapted and performed by Bill Largess. Directed by Laura Giannarelli. About 90 minutes. Costumes, William Pucilowski; projections, Clay Teunis. Through March 17 at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit stageguild.org

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