As the audience filed back into the lobby of AMT DownStage, they found various members of the cast positioned around the room, the blank expressions on their faces contrasting with the passion of their movements. While the crowd stood among the actors in this unconventional opening act, a girl ran in and situated herself by each figure, disorienting laughter escaping from her lips. She fell to the floor, still in hysterics, and the audience was asked to move back into the theater.
So began “Pandora’s Instinct.”
Behind this original piece of theater stands theater major Eric Powers ’02. In his senior project, he sought to explore the expansion of theater by the actors performing it. Thus, every actor had not only an interpretation of the script, but also a vested interest in the entire assembly.
Working with advisors Anna Bean and Sabrina Hamilton of the theater department and designers Pete Applegate ’03, Alicia Andrews ’04 and Cosmo Catalano, Theater Department Lecturer, the Powers Project began in the late spring of 2001 with the assembly of a company.
Powers, on the theme of the show, observed, “After a few weeks of workshops, using the improvisation exercises of various theater groups, including the Open Theater, I began to pick out a common thread running through the work that the actors in the group were creating. This was the fascination with man’s contradictory needs to love and to control others. As we continued working, the theme of the show began to center around the dual abilities to objectify and subjectify others. While the show is as inclusive in theme as Pandora’s Box was in evils, these were some of the major ideas we were grappling with.”
The Powers Project Company, consisting of Michael Fluellen ’03, Benjamin Kapnik ’05, Rebecca Krass ’03, Heather Maki ’04, Genevieve Sparling ’04, Cyndi Wong ’04 and Spencer Wong ’04, also sought to experiment with the audience-actor relationship. “Another major group concern was both to try to anticipate and to experiment with this relationship. We also knew we wanted to use this opportunity to develop a show which would break down the conventions of how an audience watches a show and how the theater space itself is used,” said Powers.
In production, the show itself was masterful in its attempt to escape from the rigorously-defined boundaries that can often guide theater. The interactive audience experience was very much taken into consideration and in each scene, the audience was challenged to move beyond conventional thoughts and ideas. The scenes and dialogues explored all aspects of human life and thought: love, dreams, cruelty and truth.
Often, the audience occupied roles in the performance, taking part in the scenes. Much of the play took place with the audience sitting in folding chairs onstage, with the actors using the space where the audience ordinarily sits. In truth, Pandora’s Instinct seemed more like performance art than raw theatre.
The difference in viewpoint gave a heightened sense of awareness; every motion in the room was noticed. To an engaged viewer, every moment of the play was riveting, causing different reactions from everyone in the audience. Much of the language caused feelings of turmoil, imbalance and despair.
Powers made use of the whole DownStage theater; the actors climbed over the rails, ran across the stage, walked along the balcony and performed scenes from behind the glass of the sound room.
Krass delivered a passionate scene from the balcony in which she declared, “We demand rigidly-defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.” Maki was also a standout in the first and last scenes, transitioning with ease from manic laughter to unyielding fear. Cyndi Wong made disorientation, questioning and irrelevance into tactile emotions.
The performance was disorienting because the flow was disjointed. Whether Spencer Wong was having a psychotic moment, or Fluellen was obsessively inquiring about love, what was clear was the theme of human attempt at control.
Cruelty and uncertainty also ran through the performance. In one scene, viewed through a window without sound, a “narrator” mocked the girl in the window. His speech caused revulsion for some in the audience, chuckles from others. Then, the girl hanged herself, and the stage darkened.
This abruptness and the emotive response that it evoked from different audience members was a stark reminder of the differences in interpretation that a person can glean from whatever material is presented.
Kapnik, Krass, Fluellen and Sparling created a silent scene in which love was shown to be blissful, cruel, heartless and ecstatic. These different emotions and the nuances they explored for each sensation were part of what made the performance such an entrancing experience.
“Pandora’s Instinct” was something that had to be given time to digest. The ideas behind the performance and the show itself were fraught with a complexity and an intricacy that are exhausting to the viewer. Experimentation was carried out brilliantly, creating involvement between the actors and the audience, blurring the lines that separate honesty from truth.