Let’s say your parents aren’t your parents. I’m sorry, I don’t want to shock you – nobody wants to find this kind of thing out from a theatre review – but I also feel that, although you will be shocked, you’ll also have a frame of reference to use when you start dealing with it. I mean, culturally there’s a precedent, there are films and books about being adopted or raised by relatives or what you will. But let’s say you’re a woman, and the baby you’ve carried for nine months turns out, completely unbeknown to you, to be made from genetic material that is not, strictly speaking, yours…I mean, where do you start with that? What is the precedent for even thinking about it?
That’s what biologist Jennifer Samuels is facing up to in writer-director Deborah Stein’s Chimera, a varied one-woman show performed with vigour by actor-director Suli Holum. The starting point is so fascinating that it’s almost impossible to write this review, because I want to spend literally the rest of my life googling chimeraism. It really exists, guys! This is a thing that happens.
So let me lay it out for you: twins. We’ve all heard of them, right? Jennifer Samuels was one for a bit, then she absorbed/ate her twin in the womb (depending on how in-depth and sciencey we want to get) and now not all of the things in her body are her own. Including her eggs. So her son is actually – wait for it – her nephew (HER NEPHEW), the child of a woman who never existed. But Jennifer carried him and gave birth to him and all the rest of it, and had no inkling of that fact until he developed a genetic heart disorder that neither she nor her husband were carriers for.
Stein and Holum do a great job of identifying and drawing out some of the most interesting things about their set-up, like the fact that some a-hole named this genuine biological disorder after a hybrid monster, and what this means when we consider what a monster actually is, culturally. Because when you think about it, Stein could have done a staging of the real-life story I’ve linked to up there: a woman called Lydia Fairchild turned out not to be the mother of her own children during a routine DNA test to make her estranged partner pay welfare; the state demanded her children be seized, she was accused of profiting from an underground insemination scam, the whole thing sounds insanely dramatic.
But instead, Stein decided to position this tale of a genetic ‘monster’ beside a modern monster, one that carries a certain cultural weight: mothers who abandon their children. After all, there’s little women can do in western society that we find more culturally shocking, for which women will be more blindly castigated; the failure of maternal feeling is still, in the eyes of many, never anything short of monstrous.
It’s only a short play and Stein packs in a lot of ideas, everything about this condition that makes your head spin, everything about it that’s interesting – they cover a lot of ground and they don’t shy away from the big questions. Like what is it, exactly, that makes a person a person? How does genetic science relate to the concept of a soul? And if everything we are and think and feel is down to our genes, what the fuck does it mean to have two completely different sets – to be, genetically, two different people? Chimera is nothing if not ambitious and jam-packed, even if it works better, I’m tempted to say, as a collection of fascinating ideas than it does as a piece of theatre.
We hear most of the story from a narrator who, though very distinct from poor monstrous Jennifer Samuels, isn’t blank enough to be just a story-telling construct, or well-defined enough for it to be clear exactly what she represents. And they’ve just thrown so much at it! Remarkable design and a million ideas; the language and occasionally even the music of B-movie sci-fi horror, to explore the sometimes-horrifying realities of actual science – it’s a bit overwhelming. There are moments of magic here, moments that make your jaw drop and others that feel like cheating – like using design to make you feel things the production hasn’t quite earned through writing and performance. For instance, Kate Freer and David Tennant’s video design is jaw-dropping, veering perfectly between wonder and horror, but sometimes it just feels…a bit emotionally manipulative.
But it’s a short show, like I said – a little over an hour – and you can’t have everything. Stein and Holum have generally chosen deep thought over emotional catharsis and you can’t really hold that against them, not when all the ideas at the centre of this show are so unbelievably fascinating. Chimera won’t be for everyone, but it’s far from boring, and it’s as exciting as ever to see that the Gate remains a theatre resolutely unafraid of ideas.