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How to Make an Audience Question Reality "Chimera" suggests many worlds on one stage

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Chimera only needs a minute to make you question your grasp on reality. The multimedia show---which was developed by HERE, where it is now being presented in conjunction with the Under the Radar Festival---opens with a pleasant-looking woman in a sparkling white outfit and green sneakers. She's got a cup of coffee and a cute Midwestern accent, and she's awfully friendly as she takes a seat in the audience to tell us a story about the kitchen we see on stage.

Only the kitchen she describes doesn't look like the kitchen in front of us. We see a completely white room with standard-issue equipment: a sink, countertops, a generic refrigerator. But our narrator, Coffee Lady, talks about lovely floors, a nice table, and a fancy fridge. It's disorienting. Does this woman exist in a different world?

Yes. Kind of.

Coffee Lady's story leads to a scientist named Jennifer who's diagnosed with chimerism, a real condition in which people carry two sets of genetic material in their bodies. Essentially, they absorbed a twin in the womb, and now elements of that twin are still inside them. Because of her condition, Jennifer's son Brian is a genetic match for Jennifer's "sister." He is Jennifer's child, but he is isn't. Jennifer's body is hers, but not completely.

The concept of doubling---of competing realties existing at the same time---extends to the physical world of the play. Therefore, there are two kitchens at once: The one we see <i>and</i> the one Coffee Lady describes.

Similarly, Coffee Lady is alsoJennifer and Brian: All three characters are played by the same actress, Suli Holum.

These overlapping pieces merge---along with inventive video design---to keep us off-kilter for the entire show. We can follow the story of Jennifer's strange relationship to her son, but we realize that we're not just getting "the facts." The piece also reflects the emotional and psychological experience of chimerism. Deborah Stein, who co-created the show with Holum, says, "It's like we're in a kitchen of the mind."

By refusing to stay literal, Holum and Stein invite us to consider large questions.  On some level, do we all have multiple people inside us? And what does it mean that science only recently discovered chimerism? Does that knowledge change our definition of a parent? A child? A person?

It has taken two years of careful work to make sure Chimera asks these questions clearly. It's no accident, for instance, that Coffee Lady instantly starts describing a phantom kitchen. "We're inviting the audience to sign a contract with us about what they're going to see," says Holum. "One of the things we wanted to do was have the audience lean forward and actively process what was happening. For us, the juxtaposition in the very beginning between what I'm describing and what the audience is seeing is that contract that says, 'Things are not what they seem.'"

But despite this thoughtfulness, parts of the show emerged by accident. Take Coffee Lady: "We started working on [the piece] in a rehearsal room that just didn't have a lot of stuff in it," Stein recalls. "We just didn't think to bring a lot of props. But there was this break area with free coffee. They had mugs, so that was the only prop we had. And then it just stuck."

Stein and Holum welcome this kind of surprise. They both have roots with the ensemble-based Pig Iron Theatre, and they're committed to letting everyone in a project have input. "It's exciting for us to embrace what we see as our role as theatremakers," says Holum. "That's not to pick things where we understand all our feelings and then tell people what we think. We want to go after stories that we don't have answers for and then use the piece to try to find all of the different answers."

Chimera is now playing at HERE (145 6th Ave. near Spring St.)

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor