Hell, Philadelphia

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Cindy Spitko and Ross Beschler in “Hell”
Photo courtesy of EgoPo Classic Theater

EgoPo Raises ‘Hell’ on Stage

Based on the novel “L’Enfer” by Henri Barbusse
Adapted for the stage by Ross Beschler and Lane Savadove
German Society Library, Philadelphia
April 26–May 1, 2011

Part of EgoPo Classic Theater’s mission is to produce theatrical versions of underappreciated, but influential, literary works. The company closed its season of French-themed works with “Hell,” a stage adaptation of Henri Barbusse’s novel “L’Enfer.” Written in 1916, Burbusse’s themes of voyeurism, explicit sex and existential angst, just for starters, made it a popular literary scandale—not to mention an indictment of religious mores of the time.

EgoPo Artistic Director Lane Savadove and actor Ross Beschler, who plays the lead character, manage to open up the novel’s myopic stream of consciousness, with varying degrees of success, for the stage. Considering Barbusse’s eventual self-exile in Russia and his support of Stalin, it is a fascinating piece of literary history.

A 35 year-old-man leaves his home and life to hole up in a hotel where he is having a midlife crisis in extremis. He becomes an obsessive voyeur. He spies on fighting couples, trysts between cheating spouses, a thieving chamber maid, a priest who bullies a dying man, a lovely gay romance—just to mention a few scenarios. Through all of these dramas, Barbusse’s observations from the main character become an existential diatribe.

Even though Beschler pours himself into “Hell”’s overwrought drama—“I‘m being crucified on this wall,” he bellows at one point—this is a carefully crafted operatic performance. In contrast, Sarah Schol’s witty, mostly silent performance as the Maid is top-drawer pantomime. Ed Swidey as the Russian émigré dying of cancer and Cindy Spitko as his new wife, Anna, have electric chemistry in their very somber scenes as he faces his demise.

Because some of the narrative text is voiced by the characters speaking in the third person about themselves and others, dialogue slips in and out of reality. Savadove has to walk a fine line of using this device and keeping the natural rhythm of the dialogue. This is a self-conscious risk, but much to the director’s credit, it mostly flows with the literary aura of the piece.

Anthony Hostetter’s set design of two stage chambers behind the main room creates a surreal dioramic in an already Old World institutional space in the library of the German Society on Spring Garden St.

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