Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio is really a very fitting play for a podcast team to deliver on their first theatrical outing. It’s one of those dialogue-heavy emotional and intellectual roller coasters, a two-hander in this case between a man and a woman, with gender politics inevitably worming its way into every interaction, as it has with plays like Oleanna by David Mamet. As with many of the best podcasts, shows like Purgatorio demand as much from the audience as they do from the cast and creatives. It is the audience’s job to listen more carefully than they’re used to and entertain some dark, troubling ideas, in this case about love and integrity. It is the production team’s job to make this a visually interesting, but not a distracting theatrical experience. The audience must of course be present not only in the moment and in the physical space of the scene, but they must also be transported into the distant time, place and intellectual landscape being conjured by the writing. The idea is that there is just enough physical change and activity to hold the audience’s attention, while the material itself swoops in and captures it. This is especially important given that, unlike the listeners of Unnatural Selection’s podcast, the audience of their first theatre production is held captive, for better or for worse. There is no pausing it and coming back to it. Live theatre does not hesitate to leave people behind. A momentary lapse in concentration can mean missing that crucial detail that is the key not just to understanding, but also to caring about what you see on stage.
The risk of this isn’t quite so high with a show like Purgatorio. While it’s certainly a very abstract and unconventional story, it is told in a rather conventional and very concrete fashion. It all takes place in the very familiar dramatic setup of a therapy session, an institutional interaction between a subject deemed to be in need of rehabilitation and a doctor charged with healing them to the standard set by the institution. In this case, the patients are the souls of the deceased, the doctors have been charged with seeing to it that they repent for their sins, and the institution, as it were, is in the business of reincarnation. It is curious that this manifestation of an Eastern spiritual concept should appear very much like the Western psychiatric institutions originally founded on Christian ideology. However, in this production, the placement of modern cameras in the patient’s room leaves no question that the contemporary notions of social deviancy, culpability and forgiveness are also being examined.
The two souls being rehabilitated over the course of this show are essentially those of Jason and Medea, two tragic figures who now have nothing but time to confront themselves and their misdeeds. Paul Knox and Hannah Vanderheide both have an intriguing, earthy quality as the rather unlikely casting choices to play the couple and their respective therapists. Vanderheide strikes one more as an ingénue than as one of the earliest of all femme fatales, and Knox has more the appearance of the mild-mannered down-trodden husband archetype, rather than as the man who was used to getting what he wanted until he paid the ultimate price for taking his sons away from their mother. However, when it comes to delivering dynamic and convincing performances, their natural demeanours are no obstacle. If anything, this involves the audience more in their forced introspective search for wrongdoing and the necessary remorse, as everyone in the theatre is made to question their immediate perceptions of innocence and guilt, of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.
This moral haziness is effectively highlighted in the smooth transitions between the scenes where Knox plays the case worker while Vanderheide plays the patient, and vice versa. The dialogue continues even as the lights dim and the actors change their costumes, which brings to life in quite a new way what Dorfman is saying about the cyclical nature of the conflict between this couple. At least initially this threatens to be a rather facile comment on the whole of existence, the kind that really any writer can easily make, but Tommy Lawton’s direction helps us to see that this play’s real focus is anything but mystical or sensational, despite its metaphysical setting and melodramatic mythological background. It shows how with almost all close relationships that fall apart, the trail of who did what to who and in what order gets lost over time. The original victim and the original perpetrator become indistinguishable, simply leaving two hurt, angry people who still have strong feelings for each other, and always will.
Review written by Christian Tsoutsouvas