Adapting Dante’s Inferno for the stage would be a tall order at the best of times, but the Louisiana State University Theatre company set themselves an exceedingly difficult task in reworking the text for an hour of physical theatre.
This production gives the story a contemporary sheen by opening in a city and portraying Beatrice, Dante’s figure of courtly love, as being killed in road accident. The story follows the modern Dante on his trip through the nine circles of Hell in search of his lost love, focusing on a romantic storyline and his journey of self-realisation rather than anything overtly religious. Taking most of the Divine out of the Comedy doesn’t leave a terribly compelling narrative, however, and the show suffers from its failure to establish an emotional core, or commit fully to its updated conceit. It’s an interesting move to turn the Inferno into a love story, but greater development of the emotional lives of the show’s central characters would have solved many of the piece’s shortcomings.
The performers are enthusiastic, inventive and thoroughly well-drilled, but are let down by a somewhat ropey script that demands they deliver some terrible lines about ‘going to hell and back’ and ‘damn you to hell’ and so on. The choreographed pieces are impressive, and when the cast is given leave to get physically creative – particularly in the Malebolge scene and the depiction of the centaur Nessus – the results are engaging. It’s difficult to shake the impression that the show could have been better served by letting the movement tell the story more than the dialogue.
Dante is a bit of a missed opportunity. The cast is clearly a talented group of young performers, and the aerial work particularly was of a very high standard, but the show never quite cohered. Too often the movement from one scene to the next felt too mechanical and too swift to get more than a perfunctory look at each imaginative space. Greater engagement with the source text and a little more thought about the play’s true focus would work wonders.