‘Purgatorio’ isn’t quite paradise 

Unlike Dante Alighieri’s "Purgatorio," the "Purgatorio" imagined by playwright Ariel Dorfman and staged by the Mystic Bison Theatre & Dance is a collection of whitewashed rooms bearing an uncanny similarity to a psychiatric institution of half a century ago. The story told in these rooms is one of timelessness and literary allusion. Though "Purgatorio" is meant to represent a place neither in hell nor in heaven, where one has to repent sins committed in life, it feels more like a cerebral version of hell with eternal loops of torture.

The play begins in a room with a desk and a cot, where a doctor, played by company artistic director Mark R. Carter, is questioning his patient — a woman with long hair (Barbara A. Brewer). We know she was a sorceress on earth, but little of what led her here.

The main question at the beginning of the play is: What is this place? The patient tries to figure out what she is doing here and what will come next, while the doctor alludes to rules and "the people in charge."

The situation seems less otherworldly than Orwellian, but it doesn’t let you forget that you are inside a church. (The Next Stage Theater is located in the Trinity Episcopal Church.)

Soon, we learn that the woman killed her children in a strong allusion to Euripides’ "Medea." The woman wonders if her husband is also here, "in another room just like this one," and if she will ever see him again.

In the second act, we see the husband (Carter) as a patient in the same room questioned by a doctor (Brewer). The husband, a warrior before he committed suicide, seems to be making progress. He talks about his children and wonders who he will be in the next life. But instead of being reborn, he is charged with an important task inside the Purgatorio.

Then the play, which began as a bizarre, melodramatic fantasy, turns into an intense psychological parable, with the characters’ stories more haunting.

Carter is patient and stately as a doctor, but acquires affecting agility as the husband-patient. Brewer’s interpretation of the sorceress is at first all pathos, but then gathers steam.

With minimalist staging, "Purgatorio" takes the audience on an expressionistic ride.

Purgatorio

Presented by Mystic Bison Theatre & Dance

Where: Next Stage Theater, 1620 Gough St., San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closes May 5; except no shows April 6, 7 and 21

Tickets: $15 to $35

Contact: (650) 326-0656 or www.mysticbison.com

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