‘Jessica’ wows with an unconventional production

Imagine walking into Bond Hall, transformed into an interactive drama. As an audience member, you can wander up to the third floor, where you can listen to testimonies by Jewish Swatties, or wander around the building and discover a host of quirky rooms and objects. Planned for late November, Jessica is no ordinary production: it incorporates material inspired by The Merchant of Venice, Fiddler on the Roof and the Bible simultaneously. Exploring questions about identity and acceptance, the show takes place in Bond Hall, where actors occupy a range of rooms across the four floors, giving audience members a great deal of freedom to walk around and investigate the set for themselves.

“There’s a moment in which the eponymous character, Jessica, is in the kitchen having a breakdown, and Lorenzo is in the garden trying to crucify himself at the same time,” described one of the directors, Amelia Dornbush. “Nobody’s going to be able to see all of it, just because you won’t be everywhere.”

For its directors, Jessica is essentially concerned with the question of identity, a theme that manifests itself most through the show’s primary concern with anti-Semitism. Just like in The Fiddler on the Roof and The Merchant of Venice, the show’s characters belong to a smaller Jewish community nestled in a larger Christian context, and the play grapples with the conflict that this creates. Jessica, a character in The Merchant of Venice, represents this struggle, and the production explores what makes Jessica denounce her family and give up her faith.

“Our approach of grappling with identity is different from the original texts because we investigate how identity is associated with all the different kinds of love, and how that link can be perverted,” continued Dornbush. “The show’s tone is really one of a waking nightmare, and it constantly oscillates between dreams and reality, creating an ambiguity that is really going to be at the crux of the show.”

The unscripted, flexible style of the show undoubtedly creates challenges for those involved. Taking cues from productions like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, the scenes in Jessica are structured around minimum dialogue, dance performances and constructed improvisation.

“We don’t have a traditional script, just a rough map”, explained co-director Joshua Wolfsun ’16. “Things are preset to some extent, but there’s a great deal of room for improvisation from the actors. We work collaboratively with the actors to map out scenes – it’s a little bit of a personal struggle for me to physically get across what I would normally just put into lines.”

Despite the challenges, Dornbush and Wolfsun find that rehearsals are the most relaxing bits of their day. Jessica’s opening scene is a faithful rendition of the call to prayer at sundown, and for the directors, the production in itself functions as a kind of prayer. For both of them, the fear of losing the Jewish identity is a significant issue, one that Dornbush finds her family has struggled with in the past and even today.

“The fascination with interfaith relationships in the show also comes from some of my personal experiences”, explained Wolfsun. “These are very real things that people go through that impact all our lives.”

I also sat down with one of the set designers, Emily Kluver ’15, who, along with David Lin ‘15, is responsible for transforming Bond Hall. Set design for Jessica is a difficult job, and Kluver constantly struggles with how to retain some bits of Bond while modifying others.

“Some rooms, like Jessica’s, are basically a blank slate and so that gives us a ton of creativity,” Kluver said. “Ones like the main room in Bond Hall are a little harder, with fire extinguishers and tapestries. Every room is different, which is a challenge but also keeps things really interesting.”

Spanning a showtime of two hours, Jessica promises to be an immersive experience that reinvents some of the popular stories we’re familiar with. Prepare to be surprised: every show is going to be different in small ways for each audience member. Pay a visit to Bond Hall to catch a glimpse of Jessica next month!

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