New experimental theater troupe brings Dante’s Inferno to Kingston

The troupe rehearses Infernal Dreams. (Photo by Phyllis McCabe)

“Nothing is more pitiful that to recall a time of happiness in wretchedness,” sang the young woman, her sorrow underscored by the soundtrack of mournful guitar chords as she and her male lover circled each other on the bare floor, winding and unwinding a strip of long fabric around each other’s waists.

Her pain was palpable, though the character is distant in time and space: she is the shade of Francesca, he of Paolo, the tragic couple encountered by the poet in his visit to the second circle of hell as recounted in Dante Aligheri’s Inferno, the first part of the epic three-part poem The Divine Comedy, completed in 1320. (Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, who murdered the two after discovering their affair.)

For just over half an hour last Monday night, Infernal Dreams, an original musical written and directed by Nathan Young, magically transformed the black-curtained storefront space of the Green Kill Gallery into Dante’s medieval circles of hell. The play will be also be performed this Monday, Oct. 8.

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There was no set; the drama was conveyed solely through the music, poetry and choreographed movements of the six actors. They performed on the gallery floor, surrounded on all four sides by the seated audience, dressed in black and wielding scarves, which were used to signal an action or emotion. The haunting solos, minimal bass guitar notes, a cappella choruses, and snatches of impassioned poetry, encapsulating the alienating dangers and intense regrets of the lost souls encountered by the poet on his journey, as well as the comfort offered by his guide Virgil, were bewitching. The mood was reinforced by the lighting, which alternatively highlighted and submerged the characters, suggesting a cavernous space, brightened and dimmed to a hellish, sulfuric red. In one segment, which signaled the absolution of the glutton Ciacco, gentle slashes of light sliding like tears over his kneeling body as he lamented his punishment and prophesied the future.

The movements of the actors collectively functioned as a chorus as they danced and crouched, barked and yowled. They pantomimed the passage of Charon’s boat, gesticulated frenetically and then froze in place, broke into two contrapuntal groups and in the finale, gathered together, their voices building, their arms extended to the audience as they heralded the dawn — “the sunrise on the world.” If at times one couldn’t quite comprehend what was going on — the brief summation in the program of each of the 11 scenes was an essential aid — one was nevertheless pulled into this complicated journey of the soul. The voices were terrific, the pacing of each brief scene snappy and precise, the concept gutsy. It actually made one want to read that copy of the Inferno long collecting dust on the upper shelf of one’s bookcase.

Young, who read the Inferno in college and had long wanted to stage it, characterized the production as a “cupcake version” of the famous poem and said it began as a series of auditions in which the actors picked a couple of stanzas and acted them out. “Originally there was no music,” said actor Willow Kristen Harrington, a licensed therapist living in Uptown Kingston who sings in choruses and churches and has performed in other local theater productions. After actor Zachery Pesner began singing during one rehearsal, Young brought in his bass guitar. With the help of Bret Felker, another actor and the assistant director, Young wrote the music and recorded it in the basement studio of his apartment. “At first the actors were wondering, ‘What is this guy thinking?’” recalled Young. “Finally, there was this one rehearsal where everything clicked.”

Felker, who has performed in dance and theater pieces in New York, San Francisco and London — he moved to the Hudson Valley four years ago and currently works as communications director at Arts Society of Kingston — met Pesner at the monthly karaoke event Felker hosts at the gallery.  Pesner is a New Paltz native who studied theater at college in Vermont and works as assistant administrator and actor at Headless Horseman Hayrides; he is also a certified firefighter and volunteer ambulance driver.)

Born and raised in the Southwest, Young was a successful actor in New York City in the early 1970s, performing in the New York Shakespeare Festival and in an ABC soap opera opposite Susan Sarandon after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He also modeled and was in many commercials. “When I couldn’t play teenagers anymore,” as he puts it, he earned his master’s degree in theater at the University of Texas and taught dramatic arts at a high school in Texas for 25 years, directing three plays and a musical every school year. He also ran his own melodramatic dinner theater in El Paso, playing the villain.

To support himself as an actor, Young ran his own handmade furniture business in Greenwich Village and he continues to build his beautifully crafted pieces of his own design from his backyard workshop. The father of three children, he came to the Hudson Valley to be near his two grown sons, who live in Kingston and New York City. After meeting Paige Vinson, a retired art teacher and artist who served as stage manager of Infernal Dreams, he and Vinson moved to Santa Fe, then Florida before returning to the Hudson Valley, where they share an apartment on Pine Street.

Young met David Schell, owner of the Green Kill Gallery, at one of the gallery’s openings and after being introduced by Schell to a few actors, decided to start an experimental theater company. Judging from their enthusiasm after the production, all of the actors, who range in age from mid-20s to late middle age, seemed onboard. “There’s lots of friendly people, and no divas,” said Greta Bieg, a graduate of Union College who played Francesca; she’s a recent transplant to the Hudson Valley who performed in Cape Cod and now works as a wedding gown consultant in Rhinebeck. 

The production “worked because the young actors have old souls,” said Harrington. She said the experience was “marvelous. We want to continue and do new plays. There were no egos.” Jerry Wintrob, a holistic eye doctor who lives in Accord, said he was initially intimidated, given that he had never sung before (though he has acted in numerous plays). “I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ Nathan took my song and broke it down. He kept me going.” Lighting designer Quentin Champ-Doran, who despite being only 21 years old has extensive experience — he’s done lights at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Coach House Players, and Bird-On-A-Cliff Theater, in Woodstock, among other venues — said working on Infernal Dreams “was really freeing. I could express myself more.” 

Young, who has named his acting ensemble the Kingston Experimental Theater Company, is already planning the group’s next production, which is entitled Roswell: The Musical. The production, which will doubtless involve aliens as its name refers to the famous 1947 incident in New Mexico where an extraterrestrial craft is alleged to have crashed and been collected by the U.S. military — will tentatively be performed in late November.

The company’s production is one of many performances held at the Green Kill Gallery. Besides its monthly art exhibits, the gallery hosts readings and performances of original plays. “We put out a call for writers and artists to do their stuff,” Schell said, noting that all work presented in the gallery is original and not necessarily local. “I believe the space needs to bring in people from afar as well,” he said.

He himself is a digital painter, and he described his system of locating and showing artists as “peer to peer.” To cover the expenses of events, the gallery charges $10 at the door, which is split with the performing group.

Schell, who lives with his wife above the gallery, moved to the Hudson Valley from New York City and opened the gallery in 2016. The space, which has a high tin ceiling, polished wood floor, and modular stages, along with lights and a state-of-the-art audio/video system, was previously a deli and before that a butcher, which had been in operation since 1933. In renovating the dilapidated building, Schell sought to preserve the original features. “I want to respect what’s in the community and preserve it,” he said. Although he said he still loves New York City, “I’ve met a lot of people here who are very inviting and thoughtful, more so than in the city. There’s talent all over the Hudson Valley.”

Infernal Dreams will be performed on Monday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. at the Green Kill Gallery, 229 Greenkill Ave., Kingston. Tickets are $10. Reservations recommended. Email 229greenkill@greenkill.org or call (347)689-2323.

This Saturday, Oct. 6, the gallery will host an opening from 5-7 p.m. of the figurative artwork of David Fox. 

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