‘Dante’s Inferno’ at Washington Stage Guild by Amanda Gunther

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Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Sit back and prepare yourself for the perilous journey into the bowels of hell as Dante the nine circles of the ultimate punishment. The Washington Stage Guild proudly presents Dante’s Inferno adapted and performed by Bill Largess; a theatrically stunning production that makes for one hell of a ride. Visually striking with a spine-tingling performance giving by Largess, this sinful sensation brings the dark and twisted words of Dante to life in way unimaginable.

Bill Largess performing 'Dante's Inferno' at Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Bill Largess performing ‘Dante’s Inferno’ at Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Scenic Designer Kirk Kristlibas immediately sets the tone of mortal peril from the moment you enter The Undercroft Theatre. Larger than life meticulously detailed tarot card hang suspended from the ceiling nearly down to the floor of the stage; each one depicting a different scene in the Gothic French deck. These painted cards are visually enthralling, creating the perfect backdrop for such a production. The images do not synch in the traditional sense with the nine circles so as not to detract from the performance, but they do blend well into the stark contrasting visuals created by Dante’s descriptions as the play progresses.

Working with Kristlibas to achieve the epitome of hell is Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows. Not all of hell is red fire and belching brimstone, but during the moments of the burning plains the stage is consumed by smoldering red light, hints of flames dancing along the walls. Meadows obscures the stage in a harsh darkness from time to time, allowing some of the deeper more chilling moments to land heavily in the audiences eyes.

Tying these astonishing aesthetic aspects together is the work of Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo, Jr. Even before the show starts the ambience of hell is being piped out to the audience; the haunting halls of a vast cavern and every muffled echo therein, followed by the slow sloshing of Charon’s paddle in the river Styx as you are transported. These haunting sound effects follow through into the production, highlighting moments of sheer terror and gruesome disgust; the sound of gnawing flesh and bubbling black pitch come to mind. Each of DiSalvo’s designs fit flawlessly into the flow of the production, twining with Meadows’s light work to fully enhance the harrowing experience of traverses the nine circles.

DiSalvo extends the genius of his design into Largess’s speaking roles by imbuing him with an echo of sorts that sets your nerves tingling when you hear it. At first it is the melodious and heavenly cries of Beatrice, Largess’ voice echoed with a feminine quality, but as the play progresses and he slides deeper and deeper into the perils of hell the echoes, when performing the voice of the demons, mutate into dark, monstrous sounds that bellow the pains and agony of being forever damned. When these echoes resound they strike the audience with a fear that sets the hair on the back of your neck upright.

Exhilarating until the very end this production reels you in and keeps you on the edge of your seat; twitching and often shuddering at some of the more grotesque descriptions, each one outlined to perfection with Largess’s purposeful articulation. His mastery of the language is impeccable; translating each grisly passage with an ominous tone sweeping through his being. Largess’s ability to transform this shocking imagery so vibrantly you can almost see it just before your eyes is nothing short of phenomenal. The way he crafts each sentence to sound as if he were Dante himself, making a clear distinction between Dante as the narrating force and Dante as the terrified soul mid-journey, is beyond compare and must be seen and heard to be believed.

The way in which Largess engages his body throughout the production is truly captivating. As he morphs through a series of characters— not just Dante and Virgil but all of the demons and sinners he encounters along the way— his physicality adjusts to that which he portrays, creating a myriad of characters on the stage in the mind of the audience. The ability to transform himself from one man into many entities is enticing and mind-blowing; each persona that surfaces being more sinister than the last as he falls deeper and deeper into the pits of despair.

Largess’ performance is so intense in places that he makes Dante’s fear palpable. There are moments of unbridled terror that seize you by the heart; clutching and squeezing until you find yourself slightly short of breath in those more frightening moments. Many of these more drastic emotional moments come from scenes in Malebolge, the eighth circle, and Cocytus, the ninth circle, driving the play with rapt haunted enchantment to its foregone conclusion.

You must arm yourself with the qualities of fortitude if you are to travel alongside of Washington Stage Guild’s Dante’s Inferno this epic tale of hell; a theatrical masterpiece if ever there was one this season.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Bill Largess performing 'Dante's Inferno' at Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Bill Largess performing ‘Dante’s Inferno’ at Washington Stage Guild. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Dante’s Inferno plays through March 17, 2013 in The Undercroft Theatre— 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.