Purgatorio is a play written by Ariel Dorfman – best known for Death and the Maiden – brought to life for the Perth Fringe World festival by actors Jason Cavanagh and Freya Pragt. Performed in a dark and shrouded room, the performance tells a story of purgatory and atonement, offering a dark and troubled insight into the human psyche.
Segregated by gender, the audience is made to sit opposite one another throughout. Nothing but a mesh screen divides them while Pragt and Cavanagh appear to stand motionless on stage. After five minutes of this to moody piano, the lights cut. When they come back on, the purpose of the screen becomes apparent. By creative use of lighting, audiences are essentially blocked from seeing half the performance; so that emotions rise to the surface, whilst motives are concealed.
Superficially, this play is about a lover scorned; about murder, and suicide, and irrational behaviours. These are explored after the fact – or, more specifically, after life itself. The unnamed main characters find themselves in purgatory, having their souls absolved and purged by auditors. Interestingly, these sessions are recorded on camera, with the forces of heaven run like a shady corporation. As the sessions go on, it seems that GOD Inc. is run by an amalgamation of Franz Kafka and Vladimir Lenin. The lines between heaven and hell blur.
In spite of this, the religious overtones are downplayed, with scarce few overt references to Judaeo-Christian religions. Instead, the ‘meat’ of the plot development comes from Pragt and Cavanagh swapping places between ‘patient’ and ‘auditor’; telling the same story from both sides until the truth becomes apparent. In the final role reversal, the true nature of purgatory’s ‘purification services’ is revealed. If heaven is run on a Kafka/Leninism model, at this point somebody threw a Stalin in the works.
Using religious and colonial motifs, Purgatorio’s story drives at the heart of an imperfect relationship, exploring the power balance between man and woman, and what happens when one is pushed too far. It makes for dark and heavy subject matter – but which its two performers are more than capable of doing full justice.
Purgatorio runs from January 26-31 at Saraswati Mahavidhyalaya (SMV) in North Perth. Tickets available here.
Words by Michael Winsall