The Cellist of Sarajevo is the book that inspired Dragana Varagic’s vision for Dante's Divinus Inferno. The play is performed behind a white, mesh screen, which obscures the stage slightly. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont)

Dragana's Inferno

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Dragana Varagic's bright, brown eyes dart from side to side, as if watching a hummingbird flit around her sparsely decorated Dalhousie Arts Centre office.

"It's not what you expect," she says slowly, with a reticent smile.

Varagic is directing Dal Theatre's winter production of Dante's Divinus Inferno, which opens the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 24. The short script by Serbian playwright Nenad Prokic is a post-modern interpretation of the first of three poems in Dante's Divine Comedy. Inferno follows Dante and Virgil into the depths of hell to meet sinners whose eternal punishments fit their crimes during life.

"Hell, with all the people there suffering, is humanly warm," Varagic said. "So the whole script actually calls for that humanly warm place. When you read Dante, you see that hell is populated by so many people from his time and his own Florence. So the hell is the city. So we all have our own hells. It's a call to examine our own hells."

Varagic said she hopes the audience will pick up on this undertone. She learned early in her theatre career to "see" rather than "watch."

"The script was written in 1993 when my country, former Yugoslavia, was falling apart," she said. "The entire script is actually a call for people to be more aware, to feel, to love, to suffer, to be human."

At 21, the Dante director began at Yugoslavia's National Theatre playing Shakespeare's Juliet, then later Natasha from War and Peace. Through theatre and film, she was able to travel all over the country. But when ethnic war broke out in 1991 between the Serbs on one side and Albanians, Croats and Bosniaks on the other, Varagic protested openly against the government. She felt it was her calling to make people aware. So she left the theatre, and subsequently, left Yugoslavia.

Dante was exiled from Florence and never returned, she explained. She can relate.

"He has that identity or persona of a modern immigrant. And throughout the script there is a tremendous longing for coming back."

Varagic moved to Toronto when she was 35. She still feels an urge to protest against war.

"It's like the world is pregnant with tension," Varagic said. "(Dante's Divinus Inferno) is the call to be more aware of what's going on in the world and take it seriously. If I make a comparison to my country: no one believed. We all thought it would just go away. It's not true. It's not possible."

The theatre department chose the play and approached Varagic to direct. She says she agreed without hesitation. But it hasn't been an easy task. She struggled through seven days of swine flu last week. She estimates half of the students involved in the production have also caught the virus.

Yet Tuesday evening, the fourth-year class of about 20 dedicated drama students gathered in Dalhousie's Dunn Theatre to rehearse. While a few who weren't in the scene sat in the audience, the rest lowered themselves onto their bellies and slithered like snakes from the sides of the stage, creeping closer to the centre where a blonde actress stood projecting prose.

Varagic said the playwright chose characters from Dante's Inferno and put them into a narrative. For this reason the play does not have all nine circles. Fans of Dante expecting to see a live version of his epic poem are in for a surprise.

The director's commanding voice ended the scene, and her students scurried from the stage. A man holding a cello walked centre stage, pulled up a chair and began to play. Seconds later, a crowd descended on the scene. The actors walked quickly past the cellist as if unaware of his presence and music. He continued to play as if for an attentive, or empty, room.

"I have to tell you something that I didn't want to tell you, but now I'm going to tell you," Varagic said with a little laugh. "When I read the play, the first image that came to my mind was the cellist from Sarajevo. There is a book, which is published in Canada, about the cellist from Sarajevo, and he is the cellist that played every day at the square in Sarajevo. So that was the image I had in mind for the play."

In the book by Steven Galloway, the cellist plays fearlessly while all around him the world falls apart.

"With what can we confront or face the destruction?" Varagic asks. "With beauty. That's all we have."

Keep Varagic's intent in mind when you "see" Dante's Divinus Inferno, the Canadian premiere, playing from Tuesday, Nov. 24 to Saturday, Nov. 28. Tickets are available at the Rebecca Cohn box office. $6 for students and seniors, $12 regular admission.

 

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