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Denise Druczweski's Inferno

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Eric Schmiedl's adaptation of Dante's Inferno, set in a contemporary office, could easily have been obvious, labored, or self-important. In this world premiere production, sharply directed by Brandon Bruce, it's a delightful comedy with heart--if not quite The Divine Comedy, a warm and thoroughly satisfying evening. As the eponymous Denise struggles to rectify an innocent mistake but finds herself in ever deeper trouble, she and her few allies become more than stereotypes, and we begin rooting for them to escape their corporate hell. Denise is required to be hysterical virtually curtain to curtain, yet Rebekah Ward-Hays plays her with a nuanced mix of comedy and pathos, making her utterly touching as an everywoman battling the system with no weapons more potent than her honesty and the love of a computer nerd (the delightful Eric Paskey). In a flawless cast of six, most playing multiple roles, Jeremy Van Meter stands out in his incarnation as Coffee Dude, undermining the corporation with random weirdness and spit. The audience has to crane to see the scenes staged at the far left end of the space, but scenic designer Sean Sullivan has done more than could be expected with very little, so this is a minor complaint. This is a success straight out of the creation myth of Chicago theater: an upstart company (Backstage Theatre Company), a tiny space, an audience waiting on the sidewalk opening night while they finish the set--and a first-rate production. Through 8/28: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM. Heartland Studio Theater, 7016 N. Glenwood, 312-683-5347. $12-$15.

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