Dante’s Inferno at Sound Scape: Video Art Meets 14th-Century Poetry

June 25, 2013 | Julia Dawidowicz

Many of us remember Dante’s Inferno as a pleasant surprise in an otherwise dreary introductory lit course. Sex? Blood? A torrential downpour of shit? You’ve got my attention, professor! Obscenities aside, though, the first poem of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy continues to grip readers with its timeless relevance as an examination of humanity’s dark side. So it’s no shock that a contemporary theatrical adaptation that incorporates live sound design and glitched-out video art — along with life-sized puppets, interpretive dance and a ton of audience interactivity — really works.

Once you’ve entered Dante’s Inferno at the The Brick‘s Sound Scape Festival, you are Dante. You realize this right away, as your distorted face is randomly incorporated into whirling kaleidoscopic video projections that, along with live electro-tinged sound design, transform the theater into a beautiful, bad-trip vision of hell. Your guide is the charmingly snarky Virgil (Rowan Magee), whose performance makes you forget that he’s reciting fourteenth-century poetry as he leads you in and out of the depths of the underworld.

From the moment you find yourself lost in the dark woods, with snarling, rabid “beasts” scurrying up to your feet — This is actually terrifying! — until you’ve made it back to sweet, sweet Earth again, there’s a constant chorus of dancers, puppeteers, shadowy figures, an occasional fierce monologue, as you seamlessly move between the nine rings of Hell. Whether it’s the stormy land of the lustful or the ring of the suicidal — where audience members can physically return limbs ripped off the souls-turned-trees by demon puppet birds — the modest space somehow continues to metamorphose.

Kevin Brouder‘s live video art, much of which he creates using a technique called data-bending, brings a distinctly modern atmosphere to the experience — the space in Hell for the gluttonous, for instance, is accented by nauseating projections of meat-sludge in a hotdog factory. At other times the projections are more abstract, dancing off the performers and creating dark, visceral moods. It’s this contemporary edge that makes Submerge’s Dante’s Inferno so fun.

“We wanted to create something that was both ancient and traditional with a form of storytelling that is hyper-modern and constantly connected with the now,” director/producer/sound designer Michael Feld tells ANIMAL. “Video and sound translates the material into an expression that moves beyond what can be said in the literal sense, and connects the audience to a whole other unconscious landscape of emotion and spirituality… The play ultimately provides a vehicle for self-exploration, a movement from the internal and hidden to the revealed and explicit realities of society and our own potential.”

As interactive and multi-sensory as the production already is, this is just the beginning: Feld has some ambitious plans for the future of Dante’s Inferno.

“For the next inception of Dante, we are planning on inhabiting a whole space with multiple rooms and spaces in order to create a world that can be freely explored as the audience without chairs or preconceptions about how to experience a work of art. We are looking to give each audience member agency and choices in the narrative they experience. They will become the storytellers, as we are the storytellers of our own lives.”

The details are still being worked out– there’s potential for collaboration with other companies like the Sawtooth dance company — but Feld tells us to expect “the entire Divine Comedy as a kind of Ancient Greek trilogy capped by a dance party in Paradise.”

If Paradise isn’t a dance party, we sure as Hell don’t know what it is. We’ll keep you posted on this one… For now, don’t miss the final performance of Dante’s Inferno this Thursday.

Dante’s Inferno, 6/27/13, 9:00 PM, part of The Brick‘s Sound Scape Festival, Williamsburg. Tickets available here.

(Photos: Julia Dawidowicz/ANIMALNewYork)