New theater companies don't have it easy.
Not only do they compete for attention from theatergoers, they compete for attention from critics. Both pose a challenge. However, the latter poses less of a challenge during the summer when fewer shows open, affording critics an opportunity to check out the newcomers that often get overlooked other times of the year. Case in point: Sideshow Theatre Company, an ensemble founded in 2007 by a trio of University of Virginia graduates whose enterprising version of Dante's "Inferno," a one-man show titled "Dante Dies! (and then things get weird)," marks the group's noteworthy Chicago debut.
Chicago Dramatists artistic associate Walt McGough freely adapts the 14th-century poem - an allegory concerning faith and the consequences in the afterlife of an individual's actions on earth - which together with "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso" makes up "The Divine Comedy." McGough's liberal adaptation can be puzzling in that not all the characters are drawn as distinctly as they could be. But it's accessible, and audiences needn't be well-versed in Dante's comedy to follow the narrative and appreciate its message of faith and acceptance.
Like the original, "Dante Dies!" follows poet-protagonist Dante on a search for his recently departed beloved, a journey that takes him through hell, where he encounters assorted souls whose punishment corresponds in degree and type to the sins they committed on earth. But in McGough's hands, the grand examination of a crisis of faith emerges as vivid, intimate meditation on loss, grief and regret, to which the playwright contributes a particularly poignant coda in the form of a late monologue in which fragmented memories of the woman he mourns overtake the poet, played by Sideshow co-artistic director Matt Fletcher.
In a nimble bit of acting, Fletcher plays a dozen or so characters over the course of the 80-minute play.
There's the wary, rigid Dante who shifts from smug to self-aware; the Roman poet Virgil, a toothpick chewing, street-wise 'Joisy boy' who serves as Dante's guide to the underworld; the frazzled Minos who dispatches souls to the various circles of hell with a shift of his hips and a couple of revolutions of his Hula-Hoop; the ingratiating but spiritually void professor who embraces only facts; the pair of comedic cockneys who guard the entrance to hell and the dispassionate tinkerer who insists in hell it's either "punish or be punished."
Initially, Fletcher's acting seemed a bit mannered, suggesting a dramatic interpretation at a forensics competition.
Once Fletcher relaxed, however, his self-consciousness faded and he proved quite adept in a demanding role in which he demonstrated his considerable Hula-Hoop skills.
The action unfolds on Lisi Stoessel's set littered with tchotchke and flea-market finds.
It's underscored by Stephen Frost's original music and a medley from sound designer Ben Warner incorporating droning dial tones, faintly humming flies and the click and whir of an old film projector.
Director Jonathan L. Green's aggressively quirky, but effective production confirms visually arresting theater doesn't necessarily require a big budget.
The show, artfully lit by Kevin Cannon, contains visuals that delight (the glittery red and gold that swirls around Minos as he sentences sinners to their fate) and haunt (an expressive scene played without dialogue wherein the despondent Dante meets the souls of those who committed suicide and are confined to the Seventh Circle of hell where they spend eternity as trees).
For a newcomer with limited resources and a small space, Sideshow impresses.
"Dante Dies! (and then things get weird)"
Location: Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago
Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays through July 13 (no performance July 4)
Running time: About 80 minutes, no intermission
Box office: (773) 583-4317 or dantedies.com
Rating: For teens and older