Pandora through two brilliant prisms Playwright Jessica B. Hill creates an otherworldly, life-affirming theatre experience
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Jessica B. Hill’s Pandora begins each night with an astral projection, and what ensues is an out-of-body experience that has never happened before and never will happen again after.
That is not an exaggeration.
By Jessica B. Hill
● Colin Jackson Theatre, Prairie Theatre Exchange
● To Feb. 12
★★★★★ out of five
Within the first 10 minutes of this stunning, hour-long solo performance — a co-production with Shakespeare in the Ruins — which functions as a curious meditation on science and art, Hill makes that obvious in language so simple that it is impossible to misconstrue as anything but the truth.
The exact combination of people in the audience has never been in the same room, and will never be together in that formation as long as they live.
That is, unless the eminently likable Hill is wrong.
Everything is, and everything isn’t. We are all dead, and we are all alive. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and back again.
Such is the structure of Hill’s storytelling, which refracts human history through a pair of worthy prisms — art and science — somewhat confoundingly viewed in the world as polar opposites, even if they are risks often taken by the most influential practitioners in either field; Alfred Nobel, who harnessed the explosive potential of nitroglycerin, was also an amateur playwright. Boom.
In the beginning, a confluence of celestial activity occurred. Some view it as an omnipotent force of nature; others view it as an omnipotent force of God. It was beautiful, and then came chaos.
And when chaos arrives, the shadows of blame encircle the globe.
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman created, and as a function of that, was the first woman blamed for the sins of others. Her name means “all the gifts,” because that is what she was led to believe she was given. But when she opened a clay jar, not knowing exactly what it contained, it was she who was found at fault, not whoever created the container to begin with.
The Montreal-born Hill, a Shakespearean actor who wrote the show and counts herself one of the stars in its constellation, wisely explains the rough contours of Pandora’s vessel, but forces fresh considerations of an age-old tale.
She only knows with certainty two things: she is onstage and the audience is in front of her. Even that is questionable when considering particle physics, Pandora jokes.
Under the sharp direction of Rodrigo Beilfuss, with utterly cosmic production design from the single-named artist jaymez, Hill is given the room. It is not a privilege she takes for granted. She exists inside a jar of her own making, and summons a lifetime of learning to fill it to its brim.
What occurs within the box is what Hill’s Pandora refers to as a “shared witnessing of the now.”
That now, in Hill’s hands, is often hilarious, otherworldly in its wisdom, and affirming of life on earth as both an eons-long epic and a momentary blip in a grand, ongoing experiment. As a performer, she modulates her tone and shape to suit the task at hand; each emotion seems to come from a very real place.
The duelling particles of Pandora’s story (grief and regret) and Hill’s (quantum mechanics and art) collide with thrilling velocity. The mysteries of science, theatre, culture and religion entangle with one another, leaving audience members wondering whether they understand more or less than they think about the planet they live on.
At the centre of the show are two boxes. One is atilt and askew, with a single pillar missing. Its walls are spanned by shape-shifting screens, showing colourful images one imagines would be seen by both microscope and telescope.
At the centre of the distorted room is a smaller container, also slightly tilted, which lights up and beckons like a piece of forbidden fruit.
“Would you open it?” Hill asks.
Here, even cursory interests in physics are piqued. The epitaph of Shakespeare — Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, to dig the dust enclosed here — is flashed upon the skies of Hill’s universe. The Curse of the Pharaohs — a warning to all who dare lay a hand on their buried sarcophagi — implies impending danger.
But what happens if we fear the unknown so much that we retreat into ourselves, away from the potential discovery of self and of society? What if we limit ourselves to the confines of a hole we dig ourselves into long before it is our time return to that dust?
Nothing, or everything, depending who you ask.
It is here, in this liminal space, where science and art are so capably fused by Hill, who displays with bold clear-headedness that the two risky pursuits are equally noble, but that neither could be so rich without the other. Curiosity kills the cat, but it also creates the vaccines that save him.
This metaphor is a window into the art of science
When she lowers herself to the ground, Jessica B. Hill takes the form of a human pretzel, tying her legs one over the other and wrapping her loping fingers through the looped arm of her coffee mug.
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.