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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Chimera
Gate Theatre   November-December 2014

A medical curiosity is dressed in a domestic melodrama and made the basis for philosophical speculations. But despite a strong central performance and inventive staging, the construct is too fragile and over-extended, and even at just over an hour, it can't hang together. 

When her son develops a mild genetic abnormality, his scientist mother tests her own genes to see if she was the carrier. She discovers that she had an unborn twin absorbed into her in the womb, and actually carries two sets of DNA, one generating her and the other controlling her reproductive system. 

In effect, she is her son's aunt and surrogate mother. (It is evidently medically possible.) 

Suli Holum, performer and co-director with writer and co-director Deborah Stein, plays the woman, her son and an observing narrator, each of the three characters further appearing in different ages or guises. 

The narrator, a jolly friendly type with the sound and over-the-top mannerisms of Carol Channing, swings between delight in the story she is sharing and a sneering cynicism at the mother's attempts to control her life. 

The mother experiences the identity crisis inherent in her genetic discovery, compounded by an abrupt alienation from her non-son and guilt about this change in feelings. And the son thinks the whole thing is pretty cool, except for the part about his mother abandoning him. 

Depending on your own interests, you may be drawn more toward the medical case history, the emotional drama or the speculations on the nature of identity. But it is unlikely that you will find all three satisfying, because they take turns vying for your attention rather than blending into a resonant whole. 

A seemingly plain kitchen set by Jeremy Wilhelm allows the actress repeatedly to leave the stage as one character, rush around the back, and then pop up out of a cabinet or refrigerator as another, and also serves as a set of screens on which video effects by Kate Freer and David Tennant are projected. 

These range from DNA helices to cosmic starscapes (the relevance of the latter not wholly clear) and, most ambitiously and least effectively, to shots of the actress in her various roles and costumes blending into or splitting out from each other. 

For the most part Suli Holum clearly distinguishes among her characters and gives each one an identity. But as with the play's scientific premises, plot developments and metaphysical speculations, and as with the various staging effects, she has trouble making them all seem part of the same dramatic reality. 

Chimera remains more a collection of impressive ideas and moments than a coherent whole.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Chimera - Gate Theatre 2014

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