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THEATER Dante Dies!! (and then things get weird)
by Scott C. Morgan
2008-06-18

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Playwright: Walt McGough

At: Sideshow Theatre Company at

Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago

Phone: 773-583-4317; $15

Through July 13

A one-man show based upon Dante's Inferno? How seriously should we take a show that has Dante Dies!! ( and then things get weird ) for a title?

If ever there was a brand-new theater company brazenly flirting with failure, then Sideshow Theatre Company's debut show would be a likely candidate. If you're going to play around with a classic of Western Civilization, you'd better be damn-well talented and confident enough to pull it off ( especially with just one actor ) .

So drop any skepticism you have now because playwright Walt McGough and star Matt Fletcher pull off an amazing theatrical feat with Dante Dies!! As a funny, poignant examination of grieving, death and hellish bureaucracy, Dante Dies!! is both a silly and cerebral delight drawing from both the Orpheus myth and Dante's fictional journey into Hell to find his beloved Beatrice.

At first glance, things don't look too promising. Lisi Stoessel's set looks little more than the end product of a shopping spree at The Brown Elephant resale store.

And when Fletcher does his first characterization other than the bereaved Dante ( it's the poet Virgil dreamed up as a tough-guy New Yorker ) , you're not quite sure where he and McGough are going with their concept. But soon enough Fletcher's sheer abandon at elastically morphing from character to character wins you over.

Skinny and limber with more than a passing resemblance to Scottish actor David Tennant ( of Doctor Who fame ) , Fletcher is physically hilarious. Fletcher's comic timing in a strip tease ( where he fights off his own hands from removing his clothing ) is extremely amusing. Fletcher's mastery of dialects is also a wonder, featuring cheeky cockney guards, a southern professor and an Irish codger.

Fletcher's shape-shifting magic is aided and abetted by the show's technical crew. The weird and wonderful soundtrack dreamed up sound designer Ben Warner instantly transports you to the many circles of Hell Dante wades through. Kevin Cannon's ever-changing and colorful lighting design also helps to define the mood and characters who toy with Dante's despair on this very strange ride.

Fletcher also has the depth to inspire sympathy and fear with his characters as Dante descends further and further.

Though McGough's script could do with a nip and tuck in a few scenes ( particularly a dirty laundry-filled one examining the baggage we accumulate ) , Dante Dies!! is a load of thought-provoking fun. McGough matter-of-factly deals with mortality and the unknowns of an afterlife that have baffled and bedazzled all mankind.

So even with its odd title and gall to bite off more than most would chew, Dante Dies!! assuredly serves up a dazzling string of theatrical tricks. The fact that it appears so simple and seamless shows how these Sideshow Theatre artists are truly storytelling magicians.


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