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Dante Fubar

I love Dante. I love the way he layered meanings like an Old Master’s oil painting. I love the descriptions. The vivid visualizations. The love. Cause Dante’s all about love. Like Barry White, only you know, dead and Italian. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Karen, Kevin, and myself went to see the Dante Project, a student class project at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley.

It was very university. Clever little in jokes about Dante. Minimalist staging. Clothing from many time periods. Actors in multiple roles. Swearing. At least one naked guy. The original text totally fubar of course.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t I enjoy the production. I mean, it was totally fubar. Characters conflated, inflated, moved around. New characters introduced. That odd moment when a woman came out, stood in a spotlight, and said, “I am Hiroshima.” She just stood there for minutes (I thought she’d forgotten her lines). Then spotlight off, woman gone. What the, if you’ll excuse the expression, hell was that? 

As I said, the original text is all about love. As Dante journeys through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, he learns how to love. His reward. He sees God. Who, in an odd surprise, is a giant rose with three flaming rainbows (don’t even ask) at the cent. Perfect. Beautiful. The entire last sequence makes you wonder if Dante took drugs, its so brilliantly ecstatic, glowing, effulgent, joyous, transcendent. Then again, maybe love was his drug.

The Dante in the play (henceforth, PDante) isn’t really about love. Oh, he loves and is looking for Beatrice. He keeps talking about it. But nothing in the text tells me the why and the how and the what of that love. What does love mean to PDante? Who knows, cause that’s not what this play is about. 

The play is about how suffering is wrong and how the “Man” tries to keep the people down. Bit characters talk about slave ships, the Holocaust, War, etc. PDante wanders through Hell trying to save people and breaking the rules. 

In Dante’s Comedia, it’s a bit of a joke that there are more Popes in Hell than in Heaven. Hell is full of great men. Kings. Rulers.  Judges. Priests. Secret sinners. In the play, only the poor, the sad and down trodden end up in Hell. 

Well, we sort of had a pope, but he seemed more of allegorical figure who imposed penance on Dante for feeling desire. Every now and then Mother Church, a hymn singing Nun, poured boiling water over Pope’s feet. Which, ow, that’s gotta hurt.

As an aside, it’s quite interesting that Dante keeps wandering away from Virgil, who in the book represents human reason. Here he’s more of a Wiseguy.

Some vignettes worked. Paolo and Francesca from Inferno Canto V was well done. Very film noir. Francesca is a mafioso dame forced into a marriage to end strife between rival families. It was hilarious. Poor woman. Now she’s stuck in Hell with her weeping, wailing lover, Paolo. “And he was such a good dancer once.” At the end of the scene, she faints into Dante’s arms. A perfect tableau of the Rossetti painting of Paolo and Francesca.

I particularly liked PJudas at the end of Inferno, who sat off to one side telling PDante that he should go ahead and get eaten first. “No really, I don’t mind. I’ll sit right over here. You go on ahead.” The actor had a fine balance of humor and absurdity.

Purgatory was more of the same as Hell. Things got even weirder in Heaven, what with the Matrix style Mr. Smith’s capturing people and interrogating them about DXV. Who or what is DXV? Not sure. They never really explained it.

When we finally meet PBeatrice, she is a bit of a harpy. Pin suit clad, harsh speaking, sharp, demanding. 
It turns out Beatrice is a freedom fighter. Standing up against Them (the Smiths), who want to impose an artificial hierarchy on us all. Keep everyone down. Because again, in this version, the powerful go to heaven, the weak go to hell. PBeatrice guides PDante past hypocritical saints, foolish wise men, the lascivious virtuous, mindless soldiers who fight for the Lord. 

In the end, there is no God, just a stage with a rose in a spot light. PBeatrice tells PDante that he must look into the rose. See God in a new way without hierarchies. As he gazes into the rose, various characters who were in Hell emerge front stage. Then PDante exits the stage. Play over.

Eh? What did DXV mean? Why were people talking about it? Is the rose still God? What did looking into the rose do? Is it this a organized religion sucks, look to nature kind of message? What should replace hierarchies? Or is this a, every great work of literature could be improved by Mr. Smiths. All of sudden, I imagine Doctor Smith wandering about. Danger Dante Robinson.! 

And what does PDante want? What does PDante get? The play ends not ecstatic, triumphant, drunk on love, but all sad and kinda puzzled.

Although, the bit with the bag of eyeballs (I’m guessing a riff on the Lady Pia in Purgatory) and the Mr. Smiths was really funny. Cause you know, the f in fubar stands for funny. Right? Right! Oh, whatever…

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