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Drum Circle Pandora
Quest Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of Jailbait

Quest's new production is, like its last one, the well-received Evolution/Creation, another piece of performance art. Drum Circle Pandora, though, is more political—a gentle piece of populist agitprop that twists the myth of Pandora to make a point about social conscience. In Quest's retelling, Pandora's Box contains not all the evils of the world, but the ability to see those evils rather than remain blind to them.

An opening scene depicts the Allegory of Plato's Cave, in which the philosopher posited that a person living in ignorance might initially resent the opportunity to see reality. As in Plato, three prisoners are bound inside a dark cave, allowed only to gaze upon shadows of people and animals, never to see the real objects. One of the prisoners is unchained and brought to the surface, where he sees the Sun—here a song and dance man called Brother Sun (Jason Bowen) backed up by a trio of girl singers called, not Dawn, but the Sunshine Girls. Brother Sun introduces the prisoner to the realities of the world. He provides similar guidance to Pandora after she opens the box given to her by the gods and is able to see through the three Great Illusions of Mankind. The illusions, which can be described roughly as abundance, harmony with nature, and peace among men, are depicted in cutouts cleverly devised by Megan Hovany. These illusions give way to cutouts depicting the realities of famine, pollution and war. In Hovany's most spectacular piece, a cut-out depicts a huge, gluttonous man devouring a monstrous amount of food that could more equitably be divided among the masses.

As presented here, it's a somewhat thin though laudable premise for an evening. Still, Quest's visual invention is always a treat, even in smaller doses than they gave us in Evolution/Creation. The show, devised and created by director Andrew Park, surprises us in its creativity and, through its device of creating an audience drum circle, it engages us as a community in receiving the message. Upon entering the theater, audience members are given their choice of a drum, sticks or a shaker. In what the program calls "Act One," but which is really more of a prologue, two charming facilitators, Sister Drum (Aimee Bass) and Sister Didge (Kim DeVore), instruct us in the techniques and rhythms we will use in "Act Two," the bulk of the piece. (Sister Didge also plays the Australian Aboriginal instrument, the didgeridoo, hence the name.) After this 15-minute lesson, there's a seemingly unnecessary intermission before the 45-minute long second act in which all the narrative occurs.

Compared with Evolution/Creation, Drum Circle Pandora is a bit like Quest Lite, but that's not a bad thing to be. The skillful ensemble's bountiful enthusiasm in delivering the nine original songs by Scott Lamp and the choreography of Sarah Hilarides is quite infectious, and we're happy to drum along. Of Lamp's songs, the opener—the chant-like "Come to the Circle"—stands out on a first hearing and gets us in the mood for a good time. The four-piece Sunshine Band (sans KC, sorry), directed by Gary Powell, sounds terrific. Only some inconsistencies in the miking marred the evening.

There's an energy and sincerity that always comes through in a Quest production and this is no exception. Further, the fact that they charge no admission for their shows makes the performances feel like a special gift to the audience. Their populist practices are matched here with an appropriately populist theme. If the message comes off a bit simplistic for adults, it's all the more accessible for the many kids in the audience. Giving families a chance to show their kids what magic can be done with stagecraft together with a worthwhile message is a great gift indeed.

Drum Circle Pandora will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through September 19, 2010 at the Blue Theatre, 1609 W. Gregory, Chicago. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made by visiting www.questensemble.org, emailing reservations@questensemble.org or calling 312-458-0895.

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-- John Olson



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