"This is the first circle of Hell," yells a woman clad in black. Her voice is amplified by a body mike worn on her head in the fashion of rock stars. Industrial music blares out at such a loud volume that you can feel it in your bones. A wall which up to now has served as a backdrop falls to the floor, creating a gust of wind that blasts the audience members seated close by. This is but one of many arresting theatrical images in So Long Ago I Can't Remember... a divine comedy, a new work by Michael Counts, the artistic director of GAle GAtes et al.
This visually stunning work is presented as a performance installation in the sprawling, 40,000-square-foot former warehouse that serves as home to the innovative company. A richly haunting score, composed by Joseph Diebes, complements the action. Inspired by Dante's 14th century masterpiece, the performance literally takes the audience on a journey through the nine circles of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, with the aforementioned woman in black (played by Kate Moran) serving as guide. At times, she introduces characters to the audience; at other times, she leaves them unnamed.
This strategy of selective knowledge is reinforced in the text by Kevin Oakes. The multi-lingual script is often confusing, and character relationships are only barely developed. At best, the audience can latch onto provocative statements such as "The dead are using you for their pleasure." But this ambiguous word play soon becomes both pretentious and frustrating.
Those expecting a well-made play, or even a coherent narrative, are bound to be disappointed. Counts is obviously influenced by Robert Wilson's theater of images and invites comparison to artists such as Richard Foreman and John Moran. Rather than tell a story, the production immerses the audience in a sensory environment. The guide, in tones that recall department store announcements, leads us through roughly a dozen distinct installations.
Most of the time is spent in Hell. The entire first act, and the beginning of the second, is set in the Inferno. Although Counts has not followed Dante's structure completely, there are many correspondences -- as well as an updated roster of Hell's occupants. Adolf Hitler is in Circle Eight, traditionally the realm for sowers of discord. Cardinal O'Connor and Cardinal Law can be found in Circle Six, where Dante placed heretics. This is a daring move, considering that O'Connor only recently died and Law is still alive; but Dante sets a precedent in his tale, as it is revealed that those with especially grievous sins can be sent to Hell while their bodies are still living.
Oddly enough, there is not much physical punishment going on in Counts' version of Hell. Its denizens sometimes speak of their past lives, struggling to remember details and impressions. At other times, they re-enact their sins. Nazi soldiers interrogate a young girl on a swing. A mobster exits a hotel room, splattered in blood. A man hangs himself, twitching on the end of a rope. The crimes are clear; it's the punishment that is suspect. Most of the characters also seem completely unaware that they are dead.
Purgatory is represented by an autumnal forest. A quartet of female singers vocalizes a wordless melody as Diebes' classically influenced music accompanies this section. Several characters seen in Hell have somehow made their way up to this level of reality, possibly journeying on to Heaven. As the audience enters Paradise, a winding bridge over a bed of fog gives the illusion that it is indeed located high above the clouds. Dante's Beatrice (Adrienne Campbell-Holt) is there, suspended in the air and performing acrobatic feats of strength and balance.
The talented ensemble gives its all to this concept-driven production. Some of the actors choose to speak their lines along with a pre-recorded vocal soundtrack; others simply mouth the words. The final levels of the Inferno feature live, unamplified voices for the first time. The reason for this is unclear, but it makes for a jarring counterpoint to what has come before.
The show also features some standout performances. Brian Bickerstaff, in particular, radiates a disturbing malevolence in multiple roles including a Nazi soldier, a cardinal, and a mobster. Moran is a cool, collected presence as the guide--even when she is running across the stage wearing nothing but a pair of black boots.
There's no denying the technical and performance achievements within this production. Monica Kilkus' sumptuous costumes and Andrew Hill's mood-inducing lighting design deserve special mention. However, I kept wishing that there were more to grasp onto textually. No matter how beautiful the images, several sequences simply went on for too long without any clear point. Moments of humor were also few and far between, which can be deadly in a production that runs two hours and 20 minutes.