Dante Dies!! (and then things get weird)

by Jack Hafferkamp
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 17, 2008
Matt Fletcher in Dante Dies
Matt Fletcher in Dante Dies  (Source:Sideshow Theatre Company)

One fact of Chicago theater is that there is a lot of it. Another is that you never know what you are going to get when you visit a new-for-you theater company plopped into a storefront in a neighborhood on the verge of trendifying.

A case in point would be the Sideshow Theatre Company's production at Chicago Dramatists theater of an original comedy/drama based on the "Inferno" portion of Dante Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy" in which all 20 or so roles are played by one young actor.

If a set up like that doesn't raise red flags about the possibilities for an evening that would be better spent getting a root canal, I don't know what does.

And yet....in this case the production of "Dante Dies!! (and then things get weird)" turns out to be, ta da, a wonder - funny, touching, inventive, beautifully realized and utterly captivating.

Sideshow co-artistic director Matt Fletcher gives vivid life to a range of characters that flows seamlessly from wide-eyed innocent to a hula-hoop spinning help-desk clerk to a Jerseyesque toothpick chompin Virgil, to an obese hot-dog eater to a Southern-fried atheist professor to a Barry Fitzgerald-like adventurer and on. It's a head-turning, eye-opening performance. Matt Fletcher, who comes here from Virginia, acts up a storm.

Meanwhile, as they say of this production at Sideshow Theatre, "Seven hundred years ago, Dante Alighieri began writing one of the world’s most compelling and imaginative texts. This June, we respectfully screw it all up."

"The Divine Comedy," written in the early 14th century, is an epic poem that set the standard for Western literature. You remember the story? Dante, a political refugee in real life, is confronting his demons and relying on his love for Beatrice, his muse and unrequited love. He descends to the underworld for travels through limbo and the nine circles of hell, which are increasingly awful.

As one reads at Wikipedia, "The poem's imaginative and allegorical vision of the Christian afterlife is a culmination of the medieval world-view as it had developed in the Western Church."

Meanwhile, as they say of this production at Sideshow Theatre, "Seven hundred years ago, Dante Alighieri began writing one of the world's most compelling and imaginative texts. This June, we respectfully screw it all up."

This is hardly the case. Fletcher's performance is indeed a fast, funny and never-endingly inventive tour de force.

Fletcher's performance is ably supported by Kevin Cannon's light design, Lisi Stoessel's scenic design, Ben Warner's sound design and director Jonathan L. Green's crisp pacing. A tip of the cap, too, to playwright Walt McGough who takes Dante's drama, symbolism and insights and ably translates them to our own time and space.

This production is genuinely fun.

"Dante Dies" plays at Chicago Dramatists through July 13. There are evening performances Thursday to Saturdays at a Sunday matinee. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students) and available from 773-583-4317 or www.sideshowtheatre.org.

Jack Hafferkamp covers Chicago


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