Review: Purgatorio @ Fringe

Words by: Michael Winsall

Purgatorio is play written by Ariel Dorfman, best known for ‘Death and the Maiden’, and brought to life for the Perth Fringe Festival by Jason Cavanagh and Freya Pragt. The show ushers you into a dark, shrouded room and tells a story of purgatory and atonement for sin, providing a dark insight into the human psyche.

When ushered in to the room, the audience is segregated by gender, facing opposite to each other with nothing but a mesh screen dividing them. Standing there, motionless, are Pragt and Cavanagh. Once the audience is settled, there is 5 minutes of moody piano, the lights cut. When they come back on, the purpose of the screen becomes apparent; by creative use of lighting they can essentially block you from seeing half the show. This is played to great effect, used to show emotions, and hide motives.

Superficially, this play is about a lover scorned, about murder, and suicide, and irrational behaviours. This theme is explored after the fact – or more specifically afterlife. The main (unnamed) characters find themselves in purgatory, having their souls absolved and purged by auditors. Interestingly, all of their sessions are recorded on camera, and the forces of heaven are 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, and the lines between heaven and hell blur.

In spite of this, the religious overtones are down played and there are no real 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 comes through. Through to the final role reversal, the true nature of purgatory’s purification services are revealed. If heaven is run on a Kafka/Leninism model, at this point somebody threw a Stalin in the works.

Using religious and colonialist motifs, the story drives at the heart of an imperfect relationship, of the power balance between man and woman, and what happens when one is pushed too far. The subject matter is dark and heavy, but I thoroughly enjoyed the play and how it was performed by Cavanagh and Pragt.

Purgatorio runs on the 24th, and the 26th-31st of January at SMV in North Perth.