Sunday, December 21, 2014

'Chimera' at the Gate Theatre, 19th December 2014

You pick up a scalpel and peel back your skin.  What lies beneath?  Somewhere in that tangle of veins, bones and tissue must be some 'essence of you'.  But what if 'you' wasn't really 'you' at all?  What if, squirrelled away in your cells was a genetic stowaway?  It sounds like some weirdo science fiction thought experiment, but it's real.  As an embryo it's possible to merge with a twin in the womb and so carry two loads of genetic material, meaning you can end up with parts of your body that 'belong' to a never-born sibling.  You become like the mythical chimera, a creature made up of different organisms.

This mindmelting condition  is what Chimera's Jennifer Samuels (Suli Holum) has to contend with.  She's a microbiologist and upon discovering her son Brian has a minor congenital heart defect resolves to find out which parent contributed it.  Her husband returns a negative and so does she.  Curiosity further aroused she probes deeper, eventually discovering her genetic legacy, and worse, realising that this absorbed embryonic sister is the biological mother of her son, making her the aunt of the child she birthed.  

Her scientific expertise crashes headlong into a maelstrom of guilt and self doubt, so she bails - abandoning her family and heading for parts unknown. Deborah Stein's Chimera is an attempt to map out this tangled, chaotic psychological terrain, to put intangibilities like the soul, maternity, selfhood on a microscope slide and try to discover their how and why.  These are the prickly patches where intellect rubs up against instinct.  

First impressions are that Jennifer Samuels is the very model of prim and proper middle-aged femininity. She's got the praying mantis poise you see in WASPish midwestern housewives; demeanour driven by the desire to maintain harmless cheeriness at all costs. But this surface plasticity hides turmoil, both genetic and mental.

Her character is mirrored by the set.  At the rear of the stage lies a symmetrical set of sheer white kitchen cabinets.  They look dully sterile yet turn out to (literally) conceal hidden depths.  Kitchen and woman merge together, the point where Jennifer Samuels is consumed by the waste disposal unit marking when things get really weird.

Concealed beneath these ordinary looking cabinets is a warren of connecting tunnels, allowing Holum to pop up in unexpected places and emerge wearing fascinating new costumes.  The sheer white also allows them to be used as a projection backdrop, taking us on psychedelic trips through DNA and outer space.  Given the surface austerity of the set these virtuoso sequences allow us to step past merely discussing theories and viscerally experience them

The pinnacle of Chimera's visuals is a spellbinding sequence where Samuels stands behind glass and slowly embraces a projection of herself.  Limbs writhe around each other, the boundaries of physical and digital bodies fade and we see two bodies dissolving into one liquefied mass before our very eyes.  It's an excellent summation of the conflict at the heart of the play; a body divided, trapped in endless war with oneself.  

These are deeply memorable visuals, but Chimera isn't all flash and no substance.  Serious thought has gone into the central themes of motherhood, care and nurture.  A highlight is an explanation of a cat abandoning the 'runt' of its litter.  In Darwinian terms this makes perfect sense; the mother would have have to expend extra effort in keeping this doomed kitten alive at the expense of its siblings.  So, hardhearted as it might seem, the runt must be kicked to the kerb.  But then you're strolling along and spot a helpless widdle kitty wheezing away.  You instinctively rush to help, expending time, emotion and money on trying to save a doomed cat.  What logic is there in saving some walking dead animal whose own mother has left it behind?

It's in this example that I most keenly felt the tug-of-war in the heart of Chimera.  The veneer of civilisation, represented by the sterile white cabinets, the costumes and the Stepfordian behaviour of it's lead character are an illusion.  A major component of this illusion is the idea that, through civilisation, science and technology, you can truly know thyself.  Yet the deeper we peer into this tangle of veins, primordial fluids and genetic code the more mixed up we become.  This is reflected in the concealed depths of the simple-looking set, domestic bliss sliding into dizzying hallucinogenia.

The only division I didn't think quite worked were the repeated bashes on the fourth wall. We're repeatedly reminded that this is a set, that we're in a theatre and we are watching a performance.  The Brechtian distancing effect is keenly observed, particularly in a moment where the stage microphone is peeled away like Holum has discovered some parasite on her body.  Though ensuring we keep in mind the fiction/reality duality complements the themes of the play, it sucks away any chance of an emotional connection with the material.  

There's big fat ladles of intelligence on stage, but precious little emotional oomph - leaving us with a play that tickles the mind but ignores the heart.  Then again, Chimera is at pains to remind us that the heart is simply a bloody muscle endlessly jerking away within our guts, so any squirt of pathos risks hypocrisy. There's much to recommend here; a great performance by Suli Holum, a script quivering with intellectual gristle and stage design that's as high-tech as it is effective (also it gets all this done in 65 minutes, and I appreciate brevity).

But there's a piece of the puzzle missing somewhere, the disquieting questions Chimera asks still unanswered as we troop out.  Maybe that's the point.

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