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Contemporary 'Inferno' Lures New Pilgrims

'Dante's Inferno" - on tour to selected cities this fall - is an audacious theatrical project designed to attract a new audience to poetry.

Based on the popular English translation of the Italian epic poem published by America's poet laureate Robert Pinsky in 1994, the production features four actors passing through Dante's fearsome vision of Hell, inhabited by a host of forlorn souls.

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The "Inferno," written in the 14th century, is Part I of Dante Alighieri's "Commedia," which continues with the poet-narrator's travels through Purgatory to Heaven. Director Robert Scanlon has devised a contemporary geographical staging for Dante's Nine Circles of Hell as fully developed as . Pinsky's rendering of Dante's unique terza rima, the three-line rhyme scheme of the original.

Backed by huge projections of artist Michael Mazur's illustrations for Pinsky's printed text, designers John Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly constructed a two-story structure punctuated by doors, bridges, a ramp, and cage-like enclosures in its walls, which are pushed open and closed by actors.

A sound and music score by Bruce Saylor and Christopher Walker combines high-pitched violin melodies, played by Gil Morgenstern, with thunder, roars, whirring of helicopter propellers, and the gunning of engines, in counterpoint to the spoken verse. Pinsky wrote in a guide to the audience: "The physical action of Dante and Virgil [the two main characters in the poem] is to go deeper and deeper into Hell until they come out on the other side. The prologue suggests that just as Dante, the Pilgrim, in the course of his travels is engaged in becoming Dante, the writer, the reader (or viewer) is also becoming a pilgrim," Pinsky says.

As seen in Boston at the Colonial Theatre during its premire performances, "Inferno" is a sumptuous evening, sometimes overwhelming in trying to appeal to all the senses.

The relationship between Virgil (Reg Cathey) and Dante (Bill Camp) is one of master and adoring acolyte. Jack Willis plays a variety of roles, bringing bluster to the proud Ulysses and heartfelt poignancy to Count Ugolino as he describes the loss of his children. Leslie Beatty portrays Beatrice and Francesca, two of the souls recounting their stories.

Pinsky was lured into the theater when, along with Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott and actors Wallace Shawn and Kathryn Walker, he gave a staged reading of "Inferno" at the Poets' Theater in Cambridge, Mass.

"The reading was a success with the audience, [but] I was not satisfied. So I got up the next morning and started making more of a true script out of it," he says. After two more revisions, the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York received a grant to stage the work and send it on tour.

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Performances include Seattle (through Nov. 1) and Kansas City (Nov. 5-8).

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