Anxiety, rejection and the themes of possession and identity lie at the heart of Chimera, a production from US based Pig Iron Group collaborators Deborah Stein and Suli Holum, the second installment of the ‘Who does She think She is?’ season at the Gate Theatre.
On the face of it, the 60 minute piece seems part lecture (echoing 2071 at the Royal Court recently and Going Dark at the Young Vic 2012) twisted kitchen sink drama (its roots firmly in 1950s Nic Ray films) and part art installation and experimental theatre. As the drama unfolds, we learn that microbiologist Jennifer Samuels (Suli Holum) is not the real mother of her young son Brian. Based on a true story, it is discovered she possesses two sets of chromosomes, the other belonging to the twin sister she ingested whilst still in the womb. Brian has inherited the dead sister’s DNA making her the real mother and not Jennifer, we then watch Jennifer’s lonely breakdown as she struggles with the psychological implications of this information.
All action takes place on a synthetic white puritanical kitchen set (the design was decided upon in the very first rehearsals) – it’s alarmingly symmetrical, clinical and cold and very un mother like and redolent of David Lynch’s skewered takes on suburban America and the picture perfect small townism of Blue Velvet. Although we don’t have the quite the same sadomasochistic violence and corruption here, there is a whiff of it- the corruption is the ‘rotting apple smell’ Jennifer perceives herself to be. And is Brian, who appears only as a dismembered shiny faced and scrubbed head in Jennifer’s fridge euologising over the Greek mythical character the Chimera, meant to be masquerading as the dead twin in some sort of horror filled revenge attack? But this is one of many plants and ideas within this production and the horror element is never physically fulfilled, instead, for Jennifer, it is turned inward in a doubling effect, which echoes the play’s conceit.
Suli Holum as first a detached narrator, inviting the audience to compare and contrast the difference between the kitchen and the fact we are in a theatre (inviting us to consider perception and introducing it as a theme) also becomes Jennifer who also doubles up as Brian, a Brain who may be the dead twin. All in amongst video projections of the double helix as Jennifer slowly loses her identity and breaks down. At first, there seems so much to unpack in this slick piece-it is covered in layers of what it means to be an American suburban mother who isn’t all that she should be and has given birth to something or someone who is not she or her’s and the audience is invited to view this state of affairs almost through the lens of a talk show. But this stylistic device is itself a double bind. Stand back from it and it is clear we are being asked to consider modes of perception and what defines a mother- (who can be called a mother and therefore, how do we consider those who foster or who are guardians?) what makes us who we are and so define what we care about which leads to this idea of possession and anxiety over this possession- Jennifer struggles because Brian is not she, Jennifer is not being carried on, instead nature chose her sister, and Jennifer and her DNA is rejected not by someone but by – God? The universe? An unidentified force? Evolution? And its ending must surely have one considering Ibsen and even Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Chimera is a modern parable on motherhood- it’s a mum drama but told through a variety of narrative filters that compliment our modern times, subverting the kitchen sink genre using video, sound and light technology as well as a variety of physical theatre and some mime techniques. It aims to be a radical theatre proposition whilst tackling basic and primal themes and takes the risk of opting not to appeal to the audience’s hearts and foist on characters and feelings, but asks for clear and objective understanding instead. And if, as I’ve read correctly, mothers are finding it resonates, then it seems that Chimera is achieving those particular aims. And the sense that the continuing ego is a myth, man is an atom that perpetually breaks up and forms anew, as we experience here.
Chimera continues at the Gate Theatre until 20th December
Cast and Creatives
Suli Holum - Co-Creator, Performer, Co-Director
Deborah Stein- Co-Creator, Writer, Co-Director