‘Purgatorio’ is an epic struggle for forgiveness

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Purgatorio

Angela Iannone and David Cescarini in “Purgatorio.”

What happens when the tormenter becomes the tormented? Is it possible to forgive someone who has brought about immeasurable pain and suffering? And can salvation truly be achieved by forgiving – and being forgiven?

These are but some of the questions playwright Ariel Dorfman probes in his intense, multi-layered play “Purgatorio,” which opened Jan. 28 at Next Act Theatre. Given the emotional complexity of this drama, only flawless acting and strong direction can make it work. For those fortunate enough to see this production, Next Act achieves that – and more – under Mary McDonald Kerr’s thoughtful direction and with actors Angela Iannone and David Cescarini’s total immersion into Dorfman’s characters – and wordplay.

Dorfman knows only too well about this topic. He lived in Chile under the reign of Salvador Allende and was fortunate enough to escape during the military coup of 1973. As a human rights activist and teacher, many of Dorfman’s works – including his acclaimed, well received “Death and the Maiden” – deal with the political underpinnings that shroud victims and their torturers.

“Purgatorio” is the first to rely more on Greek mythology rather than military uprisings. Loosely based on the Jason and Medea story, “Purgatorio” centers on one man and one woman, ambiguous and nameless like the drab gray colors that wash out their prison-like “room” in the afterlife. There, they endure a never-ending “nothingness.”

The play shifts between three scenes (without intermission) in which the man and woman change roles as prisoner and interrogator. Who is “right” and who is “wrong/wronged” no longer matters. Both have suffered – and caused suffering – at the other’s expense. There is no heavenly presence to intervene as they battle each other, verbally and physically. There are no angels to carry their prayers to heaven; only surveillance cameras (that might work) to record and enter into judgment what will – or won’t – happen to them. The question remains: can they forgive – and be forgiven – to escape a prison of their own making?

Iannone and Cescarini work together like dry tinder catching fire, one setting the other ablaze with fury, perhaps with a move that’s a little too close, a word that reopens an old wound. They are spontaneous combustion that fascinates us as they repel each other. Kerr paces restraint throughout to allow breathing space for these two fine actors – as well as for the audience they pull into their drama.

If “hell is other people,” as existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre once said, than “Purgatorio” is the mirror which, upon reflection, reveals the true source of that suffering.

“Purgatorio” runs through Feb. 21 at the Off-Broadway Theatre, 342 N. Water St., 2nd Floor. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit www.nextact.org.

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