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BWW Reviews: MBS Productions' DANTE: INFERNO is Theatrical HEAVEN!

The United States of America, erroneously referred to by followers of Jesus Christ as a 'Christian nation', has seen a marked drop in people embracing organized religion based on studies conducted by various pollsters including Pew Research.

Many mainstream denominations have seen their membership decrease significantly and have vamped up their efforts to reach those who may benefit from their religious train of thought. With over 38,000 different denominations of Christianity worldwide, with a substantial number in the U.S., the varying religious ideologies have to compete with each other to win over their share of adherents to keep their faith alive.

Despite the statistics, according to a Gallop poll 92% of people profess a belief in God yet only 3 in 10 Americans take the Bible literally. What's even more interesting is in a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 74% of the respondents believe in heaven but only 59% of people acknowledge the possibility of an external state after death called hell.

MBS Productions takes you on an excursion to the catacombs of this real/imagined physical/spiritual state of being in its revival of "Dante: Inferno", which had been on a 5-year hiatus.

Thankfully Mark-Brian Sonna, founder of the theater company bearing his name had the good inclination to rouse this delicious demon of a play from its hellish slumber because it is a must see.

Written by Alejandro de la Costa, translated/directed by Sonna, and featuring the outstanding ensemble talents of J. Kyle Harris, Shawn Gann, Ivan Jones, Megan Duelm, Bronze C. Hill, Emily Rahm, Heath Billups, Brian Eschete, and Sonna himself as Satan in a chilling 4-minute cameo, "Dante: Inferno" is one of the best plays I have reviewed in a LONG time.

Under Sonna's superb direction, with plenty of extreme risk taking that elevates the story to a whole new level, "Dante: Inferno" uses every image, caricature, and stereotype of what 'hell' is to those who believe in its existence goes far beyond expectation and completely immerses the audience in what MBS calls "an experience."

At the beginning of this first-class round trip ticket to the bowels of hell, we find the title character Dante, brilliantly portrayed by Harris, in search of his eternal love Beatrice. Ill-equipped to deal with the tumultuous journey on his own and safely make it back to the land of the living, he is soon joined by his tour guide, Virgil, played with stoic dignity and insight by the talented Gann. The interaction between the two actors is solid throughout the entire production, which each playing off each other for maximum effect.

As Dante enters different levels of hell (which Virgil refers to as 'circles'), all symbolizing some form of the 7 Deadly Sins (divided up further by Catholics into two categories: venial sins for minor offenses and mortal sins that come with the danger of eternal damnation), Dante encounters a huge number of 'different spirits' paying penance for some misdeed(s) during their time on earth.

It is here "Dante: Inferno" rises like a mighty Phoenix from the ashes of an imaginary hell into the heavens of theatrical greatness. The use of experimental theatre techniques such as language modification, body movement, unique props, lighting, and sound all congeal to manipulate the audience's perception of the story being told in a manner rarely experienced in the Dallas/Fort Worth mainstream theater community, known for its affinity for importing talent and focusing strictly on profits over creative excellence.

A number of local theater companies rely on performing spaces too large for the story being told, unnecessary props, campy and predictable sound effects, and utilize popular talent icons to sell their story. MBS raises the bar HIGH and proves the only thing needed is a directing vision and Committed Artists dedicated to telling a story with high production standards.

Jones, who is exceptionally limber and sinewy, slinks and crawls across the floor with the ease of an Egyptian beetle, drawing the audience into the hellish environment that is its inhabitants' home. He is a clear standout throughout the play, especially a scene in which the inhabitants come bearing their vomit in glass bowls and he drops his, picking at the fragments like a depraved lost soul returning pitifully to his own bile.

Other standout performances belong to Hill, whose beguiling manner is so disarming that in one scene with Dante (who he tries to kiss), you find yourself squarely in Dante's skin trying to escape what you know is very deliberate seduction but unable to flee the grasp of. He is equally effective in other scenes in which he has to display pain or any emotion that comes with residing in hell forever.

The same goes for the talented Duelm, who you simply 'feel' in each of her assigned roles, in particular one in which she shares her experience in the Tower of Hunger as a young mother and a horrific decision she has to make that lands her in hell.

Billups, Rahm, and Eschete bring a strong, visual aesthetic to the production, often appearing as empty nymphs who in a second can deliver death defying, searing SCREAMS for which there is no escape. Like Jones, they all manipulate their bodies with the ease of Pilobus Dance Theater members in a stunning display of contortions and athleticism across the floor, on theater boxes, or freestyle.

Even though the image most people have of Satan is the Halloween caricature with devil horns, wings, and a forked tail, Sonna' s portrayal of the fallen angel in this get up doesn't detract from the short performance he gives without uttering one word. Even with male full frontal nudity in this brief scene, the visual doesn't register at all because all eyes were on Sonna making final claim to his formerly earthen prey.

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This play contains adult situations, violence, and brief male frontal nudity therefore no minors are allowed.

Tickets can be purchase on-line by clicking on this LINK, calling 214-477-4942, or by visiting the theatre box office 30 minutes before curtain time. Tickets range from $17 to $25 depending on the night of the week and the show. 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.

With an extended run through Sat. Nov. 9 due to popular demand, all performances of "Dante: Inferno" are being held at the Stone Cottage Theatre, located at 15650 Addison Road, Addison, TX 75001 in the Addison Conference and Theatre Center. For D/FW metroplex directions, please click on this LINK.

The Addison Stone Cottage Theater is small so "Dante: Inferno" has very limited seating. In order to not interrupt the performance, there is no late seating. Patrons are advised to arrive at the Stone Cottage Theatre at least 15 minutes prior to curtain time.

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