Thanks to Robert Pinsky, poet laureate of the United States, thousands of people can experience a fresh taste of Hell. A stage adaptation of the writer's ambitious 1994 translation of Dante's Inferno comes to South Florida this week as part of the Miami Book Fair International. Count Ugolino will devour Archbishop Ruggieri in the story's celebrated act of cannibalism, and the poet Virgil will guide Dante into all the dark corners reserved for the damned: in this case, the auditorium at Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus.
Hell on stage? In the new chamber-size production, directed by Robert Scanlan, long-time dramaturge at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre and produced by the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York City, only four actors depict Dante, Virgil, and an entire host of damned souls. The set is a two-tier affair, decorated with projections of paintings by Boston artist Michael Mazur. Pinsky describes the set as "representational, but not always immediately legible as images -- stark, dark, memorable, elegant, scary." As for the onstage savagery, no actual flesh is torn; an unlucky watermelon stands in for the body of the archbishop.
Pinsky, on leave from his teaching duties at Boston University while fulfilling his poetic chores, e-mailed his thoughts about the drama while en route from Norfolk, Virginia, to Washington, D. C. As he explains, the version we'll see is the result of several attempts to put together a voyage of the damned. "The idea of a staged Inferno came from Cambridge's Poets' Theater, which Bob Scanlan was associated with," he says. "I created a script for a staged reading by four voices, with one reader reciting Virgil's lines while the other three, including one woman, took turns reading Dante's lines."
Pinsky's conception was more an elaborate staged reading than a full-fledged play. He brought in his poet buddies plus some well-known actors. "That script was performed by [poets] Frank Bidart, Louise Gluck, Lloyd Schwartz, and me at the Manhattan Theater Club, and we will be presenting it at various places around the country with [Irish poet] Eavan Boland taking over for Louise in Indianapolis. The Poet's Theater did an earlier version of this script with Derek Walcott and me, along with the fine actors Wallace Shawn and Katherine Walker."
Pinsky's translation (now available as a Penguin audiobook, read by Seamus Heaney, Gluck, Frank Bidart, and the poet laureate) is not the theatrical adaptation that's on tour and will stop here. "Bob Scanlan has created a different script and conception, much more elaborate and theatrical, with a set, music, and sound effects," Pinsky says. Scanlan also brought in company members from the American Repertory Theatre, so Inferno now features "one actor -- the brilliant Bill Camp -- portraying Dante, Reg Cathey as an impressive stentorian Virgil, Jack Willis doing a remarkable job with [damned souls] Ulysses, Ugolino, et cetera, and Lesley Beatty creating a memorable Pier de la Vigna and Francesca" and other denizens of Hell.
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The poet says he is less concerned with what his characters look like than what they sound like. "I think that the vocality of Virgil and Dante is much more important than their physical appearance. Inferno is a poem of voices, and it probably should be a stage presentation of voices, as well. That said, I think Bill Camp's tormented Everyman Dante and Reg Cathey's African-American Virgil are forceful."
Pinsky confesses he isn't familiar with other attempts to stage the fourteenth-century epic poem, but he thinks it's ripe for dramatic exploitation of the right sort: "Yes, though it is true that the poem is very dramatic, full of dialogue -- more so than the Purgatorio or Paradiso -- I was nervous that it might not work onstage."
-- Robin Dougherty
Dante's Inferno runs Friday, October 23, through Sunday, October 25, at the auditorium of Miami-Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus, 300 NE 2nd Ave. Tickets cost $10. Call 305-237-3258.