Patrick Baliani is a very brave man.
And the Rogue Theatre a very brave company.
Baliani has adapted “Purgatorio,” the second part of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” for the stage. The Rogue’s season-ender is that adaptation.
Read “Purgatorio” and you’d think it would be impossible to stage.
See this Rogue production, directed by Joseph McGrath, and you’d wonder why it hasn’t been done before (we could not find references to any other stage adaptations). It was completely engrossing.
The story: “Purgatorio” begins as Dante and his guide, Virgil, emerge from hell and prepare to climb Mount Purgatorio, the last challenge before Dante is able to reach Paradise and the great love of his life, Beatrice. The mountain is no stroll up a hill — it has seven treacherous terraces, each representing a capital sin, which some Christians consider the root of all sins. As Dante and Virgil reach a terrace, they are confronted with dead souls who are trying to atone for their wrongs.
The sins, the souls: Before the climb begins, Dante and Virgil are in Ante-Purgatory, at the foot of the mountain. There they meet souls who are doing penance before they can even begin the climb to atone for their sins. The first hill to climb is where those who have committed the sin of pride work it all out. Subsequent terraces are envy, wrath, sloth, avarice/prodigality, gluttony, and finally, the one closest to Paradise, lust.
Bring out your dead: There are many challenges in staging “Purgatorio:” Terrible sins such as cannibalism must be portrayed. And then there’s this: Everyone, with the exception of Dante, is dead. The poet Virgil was brought out of Limbo (where unbaptized souls reside) to guide Dante. They emerge from hell and land on Ante-Purgatorio, where they meet the guardian of the mountain, the Stoic Cato the Younger. On their journey, they encounter such spirits — shades, as Dante referred to them — as the warrior Provenzan, who was not a very nice man but escaped an eternity in hell when his final act was saving the life of an imprisoned friend; Pope Adrian from the 13th century, and the poet Sordello.
Shady business: McGrath uses shadow play — actors behind a screen with just their silhouettes seen — to portray most of the sins, the punishments, the repentants. It’s hard to imagine this done any differently, and it’s a brilliant solution. There’s some dreadful stuff going on in hell and then purgatory, and the shadowy images relay both the horror and the anguish. Lighting designer Don Fox did a masterful job.
It’s a group effort: Ryan Parker Knox‘s Dante and David Greenwood‘s Virgil led us on this journey with humor and grace. But this is really is a piece that depends on the ensemble. The actors played the shades behind the screen and in front of it. The whole cast showed depth and clarity.
The adaptation: There’s a chance that if you don’t know Dante’s “Purgatorio” you may be lost. But this is a classic piece of literature, of course you know it — right? Baliani threw the language, the attitudes and the spirit of the characters into the 21st century. Surprisingly, it was never jolting, often funny, and not convoluted. If you have forgotten your classical literature, you may be confused with some of those Dante meets (sort of wish The Rogue had provided a who’s-who list), but the essence of the journey and the message hit home with a contemporary eloquence.