Dante and Virgil on the Road

Rogue Theatre takes on the middle section of Dante's Divine Comedy interestingly and ably

You gotta admit: the Rogue Theatre has spheres. Orbs. Globes. OK, balls.

In a scant decade of existence, the brave (and sometimes, we have to say, a bit self-conscious) entity has tackled Boccaccio, Pirandello and Kafka, among others, often commissioning or creating custom-made translations and adaptations. And it has served them up pretty darn well.

So, why not tackle Dante's Divine Comedy, or at least the middle layer of it, the Purgatorio?

Now, if you are experiencing a wee bit of PTSD at the mention of the great Italian poet/philosopher/pharmacist, arising from an ill-advised elective in medieval studies at the ol' alma mater, fear not. Or if a sudden trembling has possessed you, and you flash back to that very strange individual who made you trudge through Virgil's Aeneid in fourth-year high school Latin, an experience you seemed safe in assuming you had left far behind you, be not afraid. This is a very accessible piece.

Rogue's Dante's Purgatorio deals not with the grim nature of what the traveler encounters in the Inferno, nor is it as bright as his journey through Paradisio.

What it is, is a lot like our lives. And we all enjoy seeing our lives, messy thought they be, clothed in creativity. This is what the Rogue gives us:

Rising from the muck; confronting our mortality; ceaselessly climbing to what seems to be a life enriched with better vision, comprehension and wisdom; confronting and dealing with those things that make our journey harder and blunt our achievements—all assisted by the strength of one's dreams, or one's embrace of fate, and the company of a poet who guides and encourages. (That last part may be deemed optional, or even declined, by a number of folks. You can bet they have a much harder time than those of us who take advantage of what we can embrace, or even touch upon, art-wise.)

Of course, Dante's world is founded on the complexities of the Christian faith, and Catholicism in particular, especially as it developed with the rise and domination of the Catholic Church and the power of the papacy. Entire cultures since the Middle Ages, including ours, have not escaped this influence, even in their evolution or stagnation or demise. Its impact is felt in just about every aspect of the language of our lives.

Patrick Baliani, an assistant instructor in interdisciplinary studies at the University of Arizona, created Dante's Purgatorio for the Rogue. His work has been featured previously at the Rogue, and he has earned honors as both a writer and teacher. Although far from a literal representation of Dante's story, what Baliani has created, along with the interpretation by a strong company of theater artists, manages to captivate us.

The concept of Purgatory is actually a man-made interpretation of the afterlife created to make some sense of conflicting or confusing Biblical scripture. It is in this place that souls work to be purified, a layer of death in which change is possible and repentance, though arduous, must be made if souls are to continue to the higher realm. It's sort of a spiritual do-over. But it's no place for sissies, for in this realm we are confronted by the consequences of the seven deadly—and very scary—sins.

In his journey, Dante (Ryan Parker Knox) and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil (David Greenwood), ascend the mountain toward Paradise, one layer of horrible reckoning at a time, grappling with theology and philosophy, intellect and reason and faith, and, of course, love.

This might seem too serious-minded and weighed down with its own importance. But Baliani and director Joseph McGrath make sure that it is delivered in a tale full of humor and light.

The most fascinating aspect of the Rogue's production is its visual element. In Purgatory, souls are without bodies. They are shades, shadows. So we are treated to a sort of giant shadow-puppet show. Actors move behind a backlit screen, changing shapes and sizes, pantomiming action, often very stylistic. That's not all we see, as Dante and Virgil are on our side of the screen, and various members of the ensemble emerge to embody characters that are in varying stages of being stuck in or loosened from their particular deadly sin. It's just plain fascinating; our culture is not used to life-sized puppet shows. The impact of this strong visual sense keeps us in the game.

Now, the Rogue walks a very thin line here. Even one little misstep and the whole thing falls into the realm of "anguished theater sincerely perceived but ridiculously (and laughably) executed." Think Christopher Guest in the movie Waiting for Guffman.

But McGrath is no Corky St. Clair. And the company of actors is not a band of small-town amateurs. Their skill and, most important, their commitment to the style prevent such a fall.

Also absolutely essential to our investment in the production is the music, always an important element for Rogue productions. Music director Paul Amiel and Jake Sorgen provide the sounds and music with multiple instruments, and Harlan Hokin directs the voices of the ensemble. This choral richness adds another dimension to the piece.

Dante probably wouldn't recognize his work, but the Rogue's show delivers a captivating adaptation.  It's not a perfect evening, and I hope that these collaborators can continue with their creation of a masterful work. (The show is not treated as a work in progress but is given a full production here. But theater is an organic, ever-evolving thing.) Some of the staging can be rethought, and the story has a too subtle dramatic arc. It's not bad as it plays now, but I think a visceral and ever growing sense of what's at stake is lacking.

The Rogue continues to be a fertile ground for collaboration, which is truly the substance of theater. Dante's Purgatorio is a rich example of a complex medium. Check it out.