Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Creating a two-hour interactive play that touches upon anti-Semitism, love that cannot be, and religious identity would seem to be an extremely difficult task. In Jessica, directors Joshua Wolfsun ’16 and Amelia Dornbush ’15 tackle these issues head-on. While they have created a memorable, one-of-a-kind show, I am left puzzled at whether the production’s format was suitable for the important story that the directors aimed to tell.
Marketed as “an original, immersive theatre performance that combines The Merchant of Venice, Fiddler on the Roof, and stories from the Hebrew Bible,” the production tackles many important issues in a format that is unique in the Swarthmore theatre scene.
Audience members are ushered into Bond Hall and given masks to wear throughout the production before being set free to explore the four-floor, nine-room world of Jessica. With actors traveling the rooms and up and down stairs, finding one’s bearings is one of the harder aspects of the experience. By design, audience members are not able to see the entire show in one viewing — an aspect that left me a bit perplexed.
I felt that the story got lost in the immersive nature of the show. More often than not, I was searching for the action rather than stumbling upon the events in the world of Jessica. During this process, I could not help but feel that I was missing something important when I was watching a character lying on the floor crying, which leads me to wonder if it was the most effective way to tell the important story that Wolfsun and Dornbush aimed to covey.
After experiencing the show once, I feel the need to go back again to better understand the plot. While this is certainly an artistic choice, it may be hard for students to fully experience Jessica during its two shows when Wolfsun estimates that it would take about four times to see everything.
And with a cast of only seven and a stage the size of Bond Hall, it may seem like a daunting task trying to fill the space, but the cast does its best. Erica Janko ’17, as Jessica, is the cast’s most valuable asset. She displays versatile skills throughout the show, from dancing with a lover to breaking down in her family’s kitchen. I found myself drawn to following Janko throughout the show, a habit I tried to break in order to fully experience what Jessica had to offer.
But the production team deserves as much, if not more, credit than the actors. The most amazing aspect of this production was certainly the coordination between the background music and the actors’ cues. Noah Weinthal ’15 sound designed a technically incredible show where the actors must listen closely to a score largely indistinguishable to audience members in order to stay on pace.
Additionally, the directors’ ability to create a cohesive show in such a large, versatile space mostly cued by music is amazing. Navigating the corridors of Bond Hall is difficult enough without having to follow music cues, but the cast manages to do so extremely well.
While every experience within Jessica’s world is unique, I wish that I had more time to grasp the lessons and stories that Wolfsun and Dornbush try to convey. Who is Jessica and what does she stand for? How does this change over the course of the show?
I wish I could answer those questions confidently, but I guess I have to trek back to Bond Hall for another experience in this technically amazing, but sometimes frustratingly vast, immersive theatre experience.
Jessica is being performed in Bond Hall at 6 PM on Saturday, November 23rd and Sunday, November 24th.
The following corrections were made to this article post-publication:
(2:31 a.m., 11/24/13) Amelia Dornbush is a member of the class of 2015, not 2016. Bond Hall contains four floors, not three. The cast of Jessica consisted of seven actors, not six.
(11:25 p.m., 11/25/13) Erica Janko’s first name was initially misspelled.
This review is pretty much exactly how I felt about Punchdrunk’s “The Drowned Man”. Which, from the sound of the show, means the team digested their influences incredibly well! I really wish I could’ve seen it. Congrats, all.
A few corrections:
Amelia Dornbush is in the Class of 2015. (not 2016)
Bond Hall has 4 floors. (not 3)
There are 7 cast members. (not 6)
Thank you for pointing these errors out to us, Brent. We’ve made the necessary corrections.
The Daily Gazette
Also, one more correction: Erica’s first name is spelled “Erica” not “Erika.”
Thanks Josh, we’ve made that correction too.