The New Playwrights' Theater looks like Hell.

It's supposed to because that's the suiting for its new mood musical "Canticle." To words by Michael Champagne and music by William Penn, its inspiration is Dante's ferno canticles of "Commedia," a 15th-century work to which 17th-century scholars added "Divina."

One enters through a dark tunnel to seats arranged above a rectangular playing area at the center of which is a multi-colored Plexiglas tree. Dark moss (green-painted ropes and burlap) envelopes the four-sided audience area and five entrances for performers.

The effect is brooding, eerie. Champagne's modern words lead us through the circles where Virgil explained to Dante the punishments assigned those who failed life. For passivity, gluttony, neglect, mercantilism, perjury and passivity, physical tortures yield to static eternities.

Thus, Champagne is working not literally but structurally from Dante, chipping off most of the specific personalities the politican-poet placed in his inferno. To supplant ecclesiastical details he replaces Virgil with an anonymous monk, whose saturnine protection will lead the poet to the hope of Purgatory and Heaven.

Philosophically, this is alteration and simplification on the first 34 cantos of the strictly balanced three canticles. Dore's 19th-century engravings and films have accented punishment over crimes and since mankind's sins have not fundamentally altered, Champagne's version is lean, modern, rarely uninteresting and always theatric. What filters through are unchanging vanities and Hell as an eternal prison of the mind.

Penn's music creates the medieval atmosphere which inspired this difficult, haunting poem. "Requiem Aeternam," chants the small chorus, moving to timeless, jarring ritual. The tree of knowledge, timeless, gleaming in the lights, symbolizes Champagne's theme of honesty. Pure sound, toneless, also is part of Penn's score.

How these words and music would seem without the creator's prescribed production I cannot presume, for the concept of William Turnbull Jr., the set of Carla Lauren Messina and the lighting of Robert Graham Small are no small part of the imaginative staging by Paul Hildebrand Jr. Tom Cramer's sober Dante and Stuart Lerch's reflective Monk are most effectively cast. Fred Strother, as the glutton, and Jamie McLean, as the lost girl, are outstanding among the other 11 performers and five musicians. It is an alert, involving evening.

Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays at 1724 Church St. NW, reservations at 232-1122.