A step down from Purgatory - Cruel and unusual punishment at the Rep

"Purgatorio" offers an uninterrupted head-trip into two psyches.

Now running at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ariel Dorfman's drama unfolds like a one-act that has been stretched to 90 minutes. Somewhere in the middle, your attention wanders. Although there are moments of engagement, you keep forcing yourself to pay attention.

Inspired by the Greek myth of Jason and Medea, playwright Dorfman, a Chilean-American writer and human-rights activist, pares the ancient drama down to two characters. Then he shifts the action to modern times and suspends the couple in their own special prison. Just a man and a woman bound together by hatred, lust and love, now forced to trade turns as prosecutor and defendant.

Dorfman poses a rhetorical question: If you put two people who have wronged each other in the same room, will they ever be able to win salvation from the one they have most harmed? And the answer is No. Not in this lifetime. But Dorfman wants to make us think.  In a sense, he creates a theatrical purgatory for the audience.

In the original myth, Jason the Argonaut uses Medea to gain the Golden Fleece, then discards her for a younger woman. Medea retaliates by murdering his new bride and her own sons by Jason. You get the drift. "Purgatorio" strives to be a dark drama packed with psychological intensity, supposedly the intellectual sequel to Dorfman's 1992 play "Death and the Maiden," which Roman Polanski adapted into a feature film.

Directed by the Rep's new artistic head David Esbjornson, "Purgatorio" lacks passion and, as a result, power. The semi-action unfolds in a pristine white room, so brightly lit by Scott Zielinski that at first glance it nearly blinds you. Esbjornson and Nick Schwartz-Hall's set design includes a locomotive line of identical rooms sparsely furnished with white furniture and hidden videocams. So the two actors seem like flies on this vast landscape of white.

The only colors added to the production are a black medical bag, a red vase and the gray clothes the characters wear under their long, white coats - an Edwardian MD couture created by Elizabeth Hope Clancy.

As staged, this production needs an intimacy more suited to the Leo K. Theatre than the Bagley Wright. Another problem is the script, which drones on and on. As written, "Purgatorio" resembles an extended Q&A session with a shrink. There's a lot of talking, but little headway.

As in Ionesco's influential play "The Chairs," Dorfman's characters have no names; they are simply known as Woman and Man. But where Ionesco's pair was old, Dorman's duo remains in their physical prime.

Playwright-actress Charlayne Woodard portrays the woman, and Dan Snook, the man.

But there are no sparks between Woodard and Snook to evoke the fiery passion both Jason and Medea describe to their inquisitors. We didn't feel one bit of sexual tension in the room. It's as if they had been given a double dose of Lithium to erase their libidos.

As the interrogator, Woodard does possess elegance, intellect and professional poise, but as Medea she lacks the passion, presence and empowerment you expect from a sorceress capable of such heinous acts. You want raging emotions; you want cunning; you want a breakdown.  

Woodard comes closest to her character in Medea's wrenching description of the cold-blooded slaughter of her children. She describes how she killed her eldest son first because she knew the little one would not run away. How he watched and waited while his brother died, then whispered, "Mother, please, mother."

As Jason, Snook also fails to capture the essence of his role. Although he flexes and struts his physical prowess, he's a mere husk of the egotistical Argonaut warrior. And he almost flatlines during his turn as Media's inquisitor.

A Catholic scholar or an academic versed in Greek mythology might enjoy this talky discourse. But for most, watching Jason and Medea give each other the third degree grows tedious. The supposition that these two sinners wound up in purgatory to vie for a second chance seems implausible. In the Protestant judicial system, they would have gone straight to hell. 

At one point, Medea describes her indifference to a litter of motherless kittens that shared her favorite mountain vista. She just walks past them as they mew for food and affection. Yet each day they wait for her. But she never brings them sustenance.

That's how you feel about this production. You can walk right by these two and out of the theater without giving them a second thought.

As "Purgatorio" draws to a close, the single lamps light up one by one in a trail of white sterile rooms, perhaps to suggest infinity. Meanwhile, the man and women struggle on to convince the other of his or her transformation.

"It's going to take forever," says Medea.

"I've got nowhere else to go," replies Jason.

But the audience does.

Writer Starla Smith is a Queen Anne resident. Before moving to Seattle from New York City, Smith was a Broadway journalist and Tony voter.[[In-content Ad]]