Alumni return for Arts Weekend, perform off-Broadway ‘Chimera’

“Chimera” seamlessly interweaves technology, mythology, science and audience interaction that creates an experience that causes self-reflection while not being remotely didactic.

“Chimera” was performed at Swarthmore College in the Frear Ensemble Theatre on Apr. 14 as part of last week’s campus-wide Arts Weekend. The production had previously had its first production at the venue HERE in New York City. The solo-performance show was created by Swarthmore alumni Suli Holum ’97 and Deborah Stein ’99 and is based around chimerism, a phenomenon in which two different sets of DNA simultaneously inhabit one body.

Jennifer Samuels, one of the characters portrayed by Holum in the show, discovers that her son’s genes are in fact not based on her own, but on her unborn twin’s. She wrestles with this knowledge, eventually choosing one day to walk out the door and leave her eight year old son. This story gradually unfolds as more information is given to the audience in a non-linear fashion. We see the older version of the son talking about his mother before we learn that she left him. Eventually this revelation is given, though we are still unsure of why she made this choice. It is only towards the very end of the play that Samuels offers an explanation for her actions.

“Chimera” relies on a variety of auditory and visual components. whose role in the play seem as integral as the plot itself. The evolution in costumes, designed by Swarthmore alumni and staff member Tara Webb ’94, fits very much with the nature of the show. All the costume pieces are either white or teal. Some shifts in costume — such as putting on teal dish cleaning gloves — are subtle, while others — such as a corset which requires audience assistance to put on — are more dramatic in nature.

Media technology is also very much a part of the production. When a benign heart murmur is discussed, the audience sees an image of a beating heart projected onto a window that was part of the set. There are also moments where Holum appears to walk through the kitchen itself. This appearance occurs as a result of the image of her shadow moving across the kitchen appliances while her actual body is hidden.

Strands of DNA are projected onto parts of the set of the kitchen. In one moment, stars go whirling across the set.

The show was not set in a kitchen, but rather it took place very specifically both as a kitchen and as a set of a kitchen in a theater. Not only did this enable for breaks in expectations about what a kitchen should be able to do, such as the moment of surprise that occurs when Holum is pulled down through the sink, to feel completely appropriate to the world of the play, but it also meant that the audience was as much of a part of the show as any of the other elements of the play. In the beginning of the piece, audience members were offered coffee. While, as a result of the very nature of audience interaction, the response of the group in the crowd varies on any given night; in Friday night’s dress rehearsal, everyone declined the kind offer for caffeine.

By inciting responses from the audience, the show directly asks the audience to become a part of the play rather than just passive observers. The play offers the viewer knowledge on topics ranging from mythology to science to stories about different manifestations of two sets of DNA in a single body. This knowledge, coupled with the audience interaction, is not only thought provoking, but makes the provocation of thoughts almost inevitable.

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