Eternal damnation & a bad date
Fort Lewis stages adaptation of Dante’s ‘Inferno’

Virgil shows Dante the souls of the wrathful in this illustration by Gustave Dore in a 1948 version of Dante’s Inferno. Fort Lewis College Theatre will be bringing its own adaptation of the classic to the stage starting next week.

by Judith Reynolds

It’s happened to me several times with women,” Kurt Lancaster said over the phone. “You pine after someone you think you love, and you go deeper and deeper.”

That’s one reason Lancaster said he’d been preoccupied with Dante’s “Inferno” for almost a decade. What a metaphor for modern-dating Hell.

Assistant professor of English at Fort Lewis College, Lancaster said he had been reliving and adapting the “Inferno” for quite some time. To listen to him, this nearly 700-year-old tale of love and woe is evergreen.

When Lancaster taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1990s, he adapted the work and organized two performances. Now he’s at it again with a slightly new adaptation, written in collaboration with alumna Desiree Henderson. The latest version will have seven performances on the Main Stage of Fort Lewis College beginning April 3.

Lancaster is out of town this semester somewhat unexpectedly, but he’s staying in touch through phone, fax and e-mail, he said. He has a short-term contract with the Christian Science Monitor.

“I’m doing some college consulting for the Monitor in video journalism,” he said last week in a telephone interview from Ashland, Ore. “I’ll be back in Durango for ‘Inferno’ in April, and I’ll be back to teach this summer.”

Hard to track down with his peripatetic assignment, Lancaster said that it’s Dante’s love story, the emotions, he’s interested in, not the political, historical or literary aspects that scholars have pored over for centuries for insight into the Medieval world. “It’s the emotional story,” he said, “I’m all about emotional space.

“To me, the entire business isn’t about Dante’s political life or descending into levels of Hell. The entire work is about his relationship to Beatrice. He was in love with her; the whole poem is dedicated to her.”

Lancaster said his first adaptation alternated between passages lifted directly from Dante’s text and scenes from famous plays – of love relationships gone wrong. At MIT, he said, he was obsessed with several great plays about the battle of the sexes: “Miss Julie,” “A Doll’s House” and “Wozzeck,” he said.

Last spring, Lancaster said he revived his original concept and proposed a new production for Fort Lewis. His plan was to retain the basic structure, alternating specific text sections from a translation of Dante with short, newly written scenes of dysfunctional relationships. That’s the twist for the Fort Lewis production. 4

“This version is actually quite different from the earlier version,” Lancaster said. And he said he planned to update the material himself and direct the show, but when he realized he’d be absent from campus with his consultancy, he had to be creative. As a result, he asked Desiree Henderson, 25, a recent FLC graduate in theater, to help him co-author new scenes. “She’s a talented writer, especially her uses of metaphor,” he said. In addition, he asked Department Chair Kathryn Moller to fill in as director. Now, he said, the production is in good hands.

Patrick Wiabel (Dante) and Amelia Charter (Beatrice) act out a scene from FLC’s “Dante’s Inferno” during a dress rehearsal Tuesday night./Photo by Scott Kadera.

“Kathryn and Desiree are the only people I would trust with this,” he said. “Desiree has a poetic sense that I don’t have. My writing is more direct. And Kathryn is one of the finest directors in the Southwest. She lets the actors find their own style, and she’s very visual. The work is text centered, but the look will be very visual.”

Henderson’s scenes of modern relationships are embedded in Dante’s descent into Hell as he is guided by the Roman poet Virgil.

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) was an Italian Catholic layman who wrote “The Divine Comedy.” The 14th-century epic poem was well known in its time and has consistently captivated scholars for 700 years. The three parts, “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” constitute an allegorical masterpiece. Written in the bridge between the medieval era and explosive rebirth of the Italian Renaissance, it is an imaginary exploration of the Christian afterworld.

The plot is simple: at mid-life, lost and confused, Dante descends into Hell and meets thousands of figures from the past and present, from history, literature and politics. Early on, the Roman poet Virgil appears and explains why he will guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory. He’s on assignment from the beautiful Beatrice, whom Dante loved in his youth and who died at age 24. When eventually Virgil takes his leave, Beatrice guides Dante to the summit of Paradise – then she leaves. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The Lancaster-Henderson adaptation concentrates on the love Dante feels for Beatrice and the descent into Hell. Henderson has written scenes for contemporary characters: Samuel and Nona, Hal and Valerie, and most problematic of all, Fred and Caroline.

“I had written this scene early,” Henderson said in an interview last week. “Kurt liked it, so we’ve used it. I got my idea from a newspaper article about an older couple who are found dead. No one knew if it was a double suicide or a murder-suicide. I wrote several versions of the story, and we settled on one.”

Because there are scenes that take place in the contemporary world as well as Renaissance Italy, elaborate period costumes will contrast with more abstract or modern dress.

“We’re using a lot of fabrics,” Henderson said of the set design. The fabrics will serve as screens for projections, create distinct light effects, and even be twisted into shapes. “We’re using a new program, Isadora,” she said of the many special effects needed to create a feeling for an underworld. “It’s very high tech, but the effects on stage will be quite simple.”

Henderson said the main translation used for this production is Robert Pinsky’s. His is one of many new translations that have been forthcoming in the last decade or so. There’s been an uptake in Dante interest since the millennium and the war in Iraq, and the work, of course, is timeless. Just this month Robert and Jean Hollander completed a new translation of “The Divine Comedy,” with the publication of “Paradiso.” They published “Inferno” in 2000 and “Purgatorio” in 2003. The Hollander translation has had a lot of press, partly because the Hollanders have chosen to print Dante’s Italian original on every facing page. Something for the dedicated Dante reader.

The Lancaster-Henderson script is a surprisingly tight 37 pages. By admission, the writers have compressed Dante’s lengthy and complex world to a study in love relationships. Everything else depends on the staging and special effects.

Among the many costume and make up challenges will be how to present Lucifer (Athena Gundlach). Word has it she will appear in regal splendor with shaved head, body paint and what will no doubt be a major visual statement.

Other cast members include: freshman Patrick Wiabel (Dante), senior Geoff Johnson (Virgil), and junior Amelia Charter (Beatrice). The principals fill out a cast of a dozen players, most performing multiple roles.

“It’s going to be wicked cool,” Gundlach said in a passing interview on campus last week. She was on her way to play yet another exotic character in her lexicon of roles. Lucifer, indeed. Come opening night, April 3, see you in Hell, Athena and company. •