BWW Reviews: Despite Dense Script, Exceptional Ensemble Effort Drives MBS's DANTE: PURGATORIO
As a self-professed excommunicate of Christianity and the Catholic Church, I'm almost afraid to write this review because of a potential future punishment waiting for me if violate any tenets of the faith based on what I write (LOL!).
Seriously, ask any devout Catholic to give you a definition of the purpose of purgatory according to catechism as they understand it (i.e., Catholicism recognized three church states -- earthly life, purgatory, and heaven), and you're sure to get various answers. Ask a Protestant and the state doesn't exist because its viewed as contrary to the complete saving grace of Jesus Christ.
But who CARES about those Protestants? As the first and only CHURCH (the others are pretenders), this is a CATHOLIC belief and darnit we're sticking with it (hope I'm doing well!).
According to the Roman Catholic Church, these things are true regarding purgatory. One, it is real ("Ok, I'll go along with this"). Two, it's not a second chance at heaven if you screwed up on earth. It's just a docking place for you to do some last minute purification since nothing unclean can enter the heavenly realm ("I don't think that's fair"). Three, it's not an actual place but a state of being ("Like Nirvana-ish?"). Four, it's not punishment but rather an act of mercy by God ("SIGH of relief!"). Five, prayers for spirits in purgatory help them get to heaven ("Hmmm...I don't know if I want sinners praying for me, especially those Christians"). Six, souls in purgatory can't pray for themselves but can pray for those still on earth ("that is WAY weird!"). Seven, people send themselves to purgatory IF they are saved first, God doesn't do it for them ("Free will! Yep, I'm onboard!"). And eight, there is no fire in purgatory ("Even BIGGER SIGH of relief!").
MBS Productions is currently examining all of the finer details associated with this subject through its latest production "Dante: Purgatorio," running through November 8, 2014 at the Stone Cottage Theatre in Addison.
Written by Alejandro de la Costa, an artistic collaborator of MBS Productions, with translation, original music and direction by founder Mark-Brian Sonna, the audience journeys with the lead character Dante as he scales up Il monte del purgatorio through different levels with his trusted guide Virgil, the Roman poet before being reunited with the object of his earthly desire, Beatrice.
Featuring the outstanding talents of Henry Okigbo, a recent Texas A&M University - Commerce master's theater graduate student, and Shawn Gann in the role of Virgil, the two lead a gifted ensemble through a LONG journey in this intermediary state of purification before meeting one's Maker.
Clocking in at a robust 2 hours and 40 minutes, this play while perhaps enjoyable to those familiar with Catholicism, is simply too lengthy for the average patron. I understand the need to 'make sure' people really understand Dante's journey and what each level means (i.e., two pre-states followed by pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covet, gluttony, lust, and subsequently paradise) but there has to be a way to CONDENSE the material in a manner that doesn't miss anything but still leaves the viewer with an informed and enjoyable experience.
Despite this shortcoming, which has more to do with translating this piece into theatrical form for consumption by the masses, this production is still worth seeing if you can handle the length. The staging, a MBS trademark, was sparse with many interchangeable props and the lighting/sound effects was without fault. Musical compositions by Sonna gave an air of authencity to the story. Add to that the company's usual mix of actors who are never afraid to push every button available to pull you into their clutches to tell their story and you still have a great production.
The show opens with an eerie series of grunts and sounds, undergirded by an electronic hum that gives one the feeling of being in an echo chamber for which there is no escape. After the chaos, Dante and Virgil enter and he starts on the path to ultimate fulfillment.
Muscular in stature, Okigbo successfully navigates his role as Dante with both physical vigor, natural curiosity, and obvious trepidation as Virgil explains to him the reason for his being in this state of suspension, as well as his own reason for being there. Gann lends commendable authority and sensitivity to his portrayal of Virgil, so well enacted that you feel more of a father/son connection than anything.
As the two souls progress deeper into the story through various levels, they are initially met by Cato followed by the Angel and subsequently Dante's friend Forese, all played by the exceptional IVan Jones who steals the show whenever he appears on stage. With facial expressions that run the gamut with each character he plays, as well as a TIGHT, lithe dancer's frame, which he manipulates to absolute PERFECTION, including one scene where his hand appeared as though it were a fake prosthetic.
As good as Jones is, whether as the beguiling Angel or the maniacal Forese, no man is an acting island. Other standout performances belong to LeeAnn Ducker (Pia, Lucia, Beatrice), Kwame Lilly (Casella, Sordello, Adrian), Michael J. Moody, Jr. (Manfred, Ugo Capeto), and Brian Eschete (Boncote, Conrad, Bonagiunta). It was a challenge to point out one single character each of these actors portrayed as 'the best one' because they approached each one and filled it with 150% of effort, which contributed to a splendid presentation of this lengthy story.
Likewise for Latreshia Lilly (Sapia, Siren, Matelda) and Joel Frapart (Guido del Duca, Stazio), who provided good portrayals of their characters. Lilly was downright sexy as the seductive Siren, bathed in exquisite blue lighting while beckoning and toying with Dante. Frapart as Guido maintains a believable air of stoicism and reflection as the poet ponders the reason for his visit to purgatorio.
The strength of the ensemble, however, doesn't lie in individual performances but in scenes executed together. The most powerful group scene involved the use of white masks which each actor wore backwards against minimal lighting and black costumes. As they spoke and moved freely around the stage, the body appeared to be perfectly aligned as if they were talking directly to each other or projecting words out to the audience.
Equally effective was a scene in which they each carried the penalty of their sins LITERALLY on their back, antagonized by the snake (played by Jones) who mocks them as they cry out in agony and at times, physically presses their sin down to intensify the pain. Or as Virgil explains to Dante, "they are being scorned for their pride."When Dante has doubts he will be able to sustain the journey, Virgil proclaims with passionate authority "born in YOU is a desire to ascend!" And with that affirmation, Dante continues traveling, eventually going through the fire where he meets Beatrice, following by going across the lake where he is elevated to his earthly paradise.
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"Dante: Purgatorio" runs through Nov. 8 at the Addison Stone Cottage Theater, located at 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX 75001. This show has very limited seating and isn't recommended for children 13 and under due to the intense subject matter (i.e., adult situations and violence).
Tickets range from $17 to $25 and can be purchased online at: www.mbsproductions.net or by calling (214) 477-4942. There is a $1.95 handling fee for each ticket order done on-line or via credit card. All sales are final with no refunds. KERA members receive 2 tickets for the price of one, limit 4 total by providing their KERA member number when purchasing tickets.