What the ‘hell’ is going on?

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is a staple of the so-called western canon. Aged and distinguished — though mostly just aged — like fine wine and pungent cheese, it’s the classic man’s classic. Roughly seven centuries later (incidentally, a divine number of completion), Russell Taylor, Brian Dambacher DRA ’11 and Dave Dambacher breathe new life into the familiar narrative with their collaborative creation, “Funny as Hell… a baptism under fire.”

Directed by Brian and Taylor, “Funny as Hell” goes up this weekend at the Yale Cabaret. It features Taylor, Darlene McCullough and Ryan Hales DRA ’11. And in keeping with themes of the afterlife, this particular version marks the piece’s third reincarnation.

From its content to its title, “Funny as Hell” is a contemporary take on Dante’s infamous postmortem landscape. The production reflects a genuine spirit of innovation, simultaneously upholding the classical structure and updating the substance. It is formatted around brief, musical vignettes, each exemplifying a specific circle of hell. Interspersed between these episodes are recorded pieces of social commentary, reflecting on the contemporary manifestation of particular sins; in them, wrath, pride and greed are made relevant. Think pop icons and drunken football fans, not Sisyphus and sodomites … at least not solely sodomites. “Funny as Hell” aims for accessibility — to move the traditional narrative beyond the academic lecture hall to the realm of experimental theater.

“Instead of developing characters and story lines of Dante’s writings, we decided to use our own sociopolitical climate, the things that influenced us, the things that were happening around us — happy or otherwise — and the different lifestyles that once were a part of the subterranean fabric,” Taylor writes in the program.

Yet, even as “Funny as Hell” satirizes the commonplace, its reliance on an esoteric means to do so proves counterproductive. The production is certainly bold; it risks staging a historically distant narrative before a relatively young audience — Cabaret denizens’ liberal educations aside. Rather than clarify the narrative arc through the use of dialogue, the production relies upon recorded verses and musical vignettes. Transitions are marked only by musical reprise. Such an approach, while faithful to the poetic format of Dante’s account, further complicates a piece already suffering from the inevitable shock of fitting contemporary elements to a classical frame. Oddly enough, it is “Funny as Hell”’s strict loyalty to the Dantean script that results in a show best described as artistically quite clever, but generally inaccessible.

In the absence of a prior conception of the classical work, audience members sit privy to a bizarre artistic spectacle, replete with makeup, nipple tassels and over-sized dildos. In isolation, individual vignettes, though disjointed, may prove comical; though lyrically perplexing, they may even prove catchy. But without having previously encountered the “Divine Comedy,” one will fail to see the purpose of it all. A full enjoyment of “Funny as Hell” depends on prior knowledge. Without such knowledge, the production is easily dismissed as art for its own sake. While there is no inherent problem with productions that require a baseline of knowledge, such stringent pre-reqs limit their accessibility. If only those who read Dante for a seminar on the classics can fully benefit from the experience, why adjust the language?

“Funny as Hell” provides an ideal opportunity for the liberally educated elite, conscious of the parody, to laugh at the underlying critique of our surrounding institutions. For those without that familiarity, however, the production provides little more than shock value. If “Funny as Hell” intends to promote sociopolitical interrogation and personal introspection among those who see it, by virtue of its esoteric presentation, it necessarily falls short. If its aim is no mo re than entertainment, those enamored with minor keys and costume changes will most certainly be satisfied.

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