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The Pandora Experiment

Prepare for Enchantment

Whether or not you were the kind of kid who practiced pulling a bunny out of a hat ad infinitum for third-grade show and tell, most of us have likely been indoctrinated with the idea that magic is a serious business. That would, after all, explain the pinched expressions of concentration that have graced patricians of spectacle like the Davids (Copperfield and Blaine) for eons. And sure, there’s virtue in spectacle -- particularly when accompanied by Las Vegas pyrotechnics and nubile assistants -- but it’s hard not to extricate megalomaniacal stunts from the hyuk-hyuk ridicule that’s invariably heaped upon their makers.

Not so with Christian Cagigal, the ebullient, eccentric, immaculately dressed host and creator of the Exit Theatre’s "The Pandora Experiment". Cagigal’s deadpan astuteness, clipped asides, and, for crying out loud, his accessibility are a valiant rejoinder to the histrionic tomfoolery of most illusionists. Cagigal scopes out the audience in affable silence, like he’s sharing a private joke with no one in particular, and thus begins a show that’ll change viewers’ estimation of magic forever.

Enacted on a teeny makeshift stage of the Exit Theatre’s café, "The Pandora Experiment" is viscerally quite different from your run-of-the-mill magic show. There’s a disarming quaintness about the whole setup: a porcelain doll with a preternatural gaze sits propped up on a miniature rocking chair, surrounded by curios and keepsakes, not to mention several dusty volumes of Shakespeare and some antique music boxes. It’s the kind of whimsical backdrop in which the timelessness of childlike wonder is cross-pollinated with an almost eerie historicity that made me immediately draw comparisons with early 20th-century Theosophical Society parlor tricks.

As for the components of the experiment, they range from “mind-reading” conjury to predictable card-dealing prestidigitation. Cagigal also posits the idea that “nimble thought can jump both sea and land” (a quote from Shakespeare that figures into the entire show quite strongly), which at first seems like little more than a hokey, mind-over-matter apothegm. In fact, several “tricks” don’t technically seem to merit oohs and ahhs, but Cagigal is so charming and self-aware that it’s hard not to feel yourself swept up in all the enchantment.

Whether or not Cagigal can actually read your mind, magically produce a piece of paper that harbors your greatest wish, or draw the card you were just thinking about are all entirely beside the point. Cagigal is one of those rare alchemists of the imagination, so it’s the evocative musings on intuition, childhood toys, and wishes that joggle viewers’ senses and magically transport them into the realm of the extraordinary. The narrative complexity of Cagigal’s show is another proviso for all the magic. Each “trick” is connected to the others -- a ripped-out page from a Shakespeare play (at the beginning of the show) is inextricably tied to a doll’s sphinx-like response to an audience member’s question (at the end of the show). Each mystery is bundled in the next like a series of Russian nesting dolls.

The show’s set design and carefully orchestrated seating arrangements (which shift abruptly after the intermission) also bewitch us with their subtlety. Cagigal’s speech being punctuated by a pendulum tock, and a music box that haunts us with a tinkling refrain of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie” are just a couple of the elements that add to the sortilege. But perhaps, if you take into account the inherent creepiness of dolls, Cagigal’s porcelain abettor becomes the unwitting star of the show. Given the mythical significance of dolls, which were talismans of power and markers of the unconscious way before Barbie entered the cultural milieu, a scene in which Cagigal’s doll becomes a double for one of his volunteers is both uncanny and brilliant.

"The Pandora Experiment" is a show that’s suspenseful almost without meaning to be. Given all the supernatural cues, I almost expected a Grand Guignol mashup. But unlike personalities like David Copperfield, Christian Cagigal is no mere illusionist, and luckily, the claustrophobic creepiness of the show is only a sly byproduct of what Cagigal seems to want to achieve: a sense of transparency and connection to the audience. The show is deemed an “experiment,” but it’s hardly a disinterested or analytical endeavor. For one, the seats are set up so you can clearly see everyone else’s faces and reactions, which adds a layer of poignancy to all the proceedings.

Cagigal also exhorts audience members to greet his “volunteers” (all hand-picked by him to help demonstrate the magic) with a friendly “hello,” so that by the end of the show, you actually feel like you’re in good company. Also, unlike most magic shows, this one isn’t about trickery or deception, but rather, the sublimity of a shared experience. The quiet intimacy of the staging, unlike most illusions (which are solely superficial and surface-based), makes you feel like you’re privy to a very special secret, and that sense of mystery ripples through the entire show and gradually into your very psyche.

The title of the performance draws upon the Pandora myth, a sort of prelapsarian story that has become analogous to the consequences of temptation connected to societal progress and the human condition. Cagigal doesn’t dig so deeply into that metaphor here. Boxes -- namely, those of the musical persuasion -- become a proxy for more numinous matters, such as the miraculous potential of intuition and belief. When Cagigal asks spectators to close their eyes and ruminate on their most heartfelt wish, you almost bargain on yours coming true right at that moment. That age-old reliance on the power of imagination is simply infectious.

The show runs through July 28.

Exit Theatre Café
156 Eddy Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Reservations: (415) 673-3847
Tickets: $12-20 sliding scale
www.sffringe.com