Last weekend, Theater Previews at Duke, in association with Producers Four, presented a workshop production of Purgatorio, a two-character tragedy by Chilean writer and human-rights activist Ariel Dorfman, who teaches at Duke University. This not-ready-for-prime-time work-in-progress by the author of Death and the Maiden (1992) once again focuses on revenge and how even righteous retribution corrodes and corrupts the soul of the person seeking vengeance.
In Purgatorio, Dorfman takes the profoundly pagan characters of Jason and Medea from the ancient Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts; renames them Man (Tom Hewitt) and Woman (Priscilla Lopez); outfits them in modern dress (by costume supervisor Kay Webb); and places them in their own special corner of Purgatory, which (in Roman Catholic doctrine) is a place where sinners who have died in a state of grace, but without expiating their sins, must be purified from sin before they may enter Heaven.
Once lovers and later man and wife, Jason and Medea ultimately committed unspeakable, well neigh unforgivable sins against each other. While pursuing the Golden Fleece, the leader of the Argonauts seduced the powerful sorceress, who betrayed her father, King Aeetes of Colchis, and used her magic powers to help Jason steal the magic fleece and make his escape. (Some say Medea slowed her father’s ferocious pursuit of the “Argo” by kidnapping and killing a younger brother, cutting up his body, and throwing it piece by piece into the sea for her grieving father to stop and retrieve bit by bit.)
According to legend, Jason and Medea married and had two sons; but they did not live happily ever after. When Jason callously deserted his foreign bride to marry a younger woman from his own country, Medea murdered Jason’s new bride, put her two sons by Jason to the knife, and fled Corinth in a cloud of smoke. It is hard to imagine more horrifying crimes than Medea’s or a bigger cad than Jason.
So, the idea of the treacherous Jason and the murderous Medea once again coming face to face in Purgatorio, where they will rehash their sins against each other and take turns playing prosecutor and defendant, is intriguing. Unfortunately, Purgatorio is a talky, talky, talky play, with too much anger and too much anguish. In a play performed without intermission, Jason and Medea give each other the third degree for what seems like eternity, but is only about an hour and 40 minutes.
Broadway veterans Tom Hewitt and Priscilla Lopez give passionate performances; but their angst and their indignation grows tedious, because playwright Ariel Dorfman has included little to elicit audience sympathy in his icy characterizations of Jason and Medea. So, the fault in Purgatorio lies in the play, not in its stars.
By mixing dramatic metaphors — that is, by consigning his pagan characters to a Christian Purgatory, rather than to Hades or some dark corner of the Elysian Fields — Dorfman strains credibility. But by having Jason and Medea steadfastly refuse to confess completely, let alone repent, of their monstrous crimes, Dorfman dooms his characters — and the audience — to another kind of Purgatory — a static situation, with characters who finish the play pretty much where they began it — that Seattle director David Esbjornson is unable to transform into a powerful or even promising work-in-progress.
Theater Previews at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/dorfman01112005.html. Ariel Dorfman: http://www.adorfman.duke.edu/ [inactive 6/08]. Bulfinch’s Mythology, Chapter 17: Jason And The Argonauts-Medea: http://www.bulfinch.org/fables/bull17.html [inactive 3/05].
Theater Previews at Duke, the professional producing arm of the Theater Studies Department at Duke University, will present a workshop production of Purgatorio, a new play by Chilean writer and human-rights activist and Duke professor Ariel Dorfman, Feb. 4-6 in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus in Durham, NC. This workshop production marks the world premiere of the latest play by the author of Death and the Maiden, which made its Broadway debut on March 17, 1992 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (Glenn Close won a 1992 Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Play for her riveting performance as a torture victim who violently lashes out against the man she thinks tortured her.)
Concerning Purgatorio, Ariel Dorfman has mused, “What if the person who can offer you salvation, also happens to be the one person you have most damaged in the world? A man and a woman will be forced answer this question — over and over again — when they find themselves shut in a room on the other side of death. With only each other as a shield against eternity and retribution.
"Purgatorio,” Dorfman explained, “could also be described as exploring many of the same themes as the award-winning play Death and the Maiden, but taking the dilemmas a step further: Can there be forgiveness and reconciliation if we have committed monstrous deeds? And how can we be expected to repent of those deeds without destroying our own identity, the bedrock of our past which made us who we are today?”
According to Theater Previews at Duke, “David Esbjornson will direct Purgatorio. Esbjornson is the acclaimed director of The Goat on Broadway and the recent Off-Broadway production of The Normal Heart.”
"Purgatorio is a powerful play whose contemporary yet timeless themes will resonate profoundly with audiences,” writes Theater Previews at Duke producing director Zannie Giraud Voss. “It is tremendously exciting for us to work with such an outstanding playwright whose reputation as an artist, novelist, and poet is international in scope, and whom we are fortunate enough to consider a colleague at Duke. We are deeply honored to be the first to present this provocative new play, and deeply grateful to Benjamin Mordecai and Producers Four for bringing this work to our attention.”
Theater Previews at Duke calls Ariel Dorfman a ”writer whose imagination has been engaged with the great moral and political issues of our time[. He] is a Chilean expatriate who holds the Walter Hines Page Chair of Literature and Latin American Studies at Duke University. He has received numerous international awards, including the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play (Death and the Maiden, which has been made into a feature film by Roman Polanski) and two awards from the Kennedy Center. His books, written both in Spanish and English, have been translated into more than 30 languages; and his plays staged in more than 100 countries.
"Dorfman’s novels include a re-issued edition of Widows, Konfidenz, The Nanny and the Iceberg, and Blake’s Therapy. Among his nonfiction works are Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of General Augusto Pinochet, The Empire’s Old Clothes and his memoir, Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey. He has written a bilingual book of poetry, In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land, and a novel with his son, Joaquin Dorfman, The Burning City. His latest works are a Lowell Thomas Award-winning travel book, Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North from National Geographic Directions, and a new book of essays, Other Septembers, Many Americas: Selected Provocations, 1980-2004 has just been published by Seven Stories Press. He also contributes regularly to the major newspapers of the world and is a member of L’Académie Universelle des Cultures in Paris and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.”
Theater Previews at Duke presents Purgatorio Friday-Saturday, Feb. 4-5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 6 at 3 p.m. in the Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on the Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, North Carolina. $15 (Note: There will be a $5 discount for those purchasing tickets to both Purgatorio and Gore Vidal’s On the March to the Sea, which runs Feb. 22-March 6). 919/684-4444 or http://www.tickets.duke.edu/. Theater Previews at Duke: http://www.duke.edu/web/drama/events/PR/dorfman01112005.html. Ariel Dorfman: http://www.adorfman.duke.edu/ [inactive 6/08].