Deborah Stein and Suli Holum's "Chimera" is a Tribute to Stagecraft

January 20, 2012

This content is sourced from Capital New York.

For theater audiences looking for something well-wrought—a good bet for a decent price—the first choice might not be the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. First, there’s the name: Things are over the radar for a reason, aren't they? That’s why there’s radar. And then, the tagline: a “crash course in experimental theater.” That might send more conventional theater fans running for the hills. But that would be too bad.

Because when it comes to making something well, in the sense of loving, painstaking craftsmanship, it's rare to find theater artists who care as much about every step of the process and every detail of the work as Deborah Stein and Suli Holum, whose piece Chimera, co-presented by HERE at the Here Arts Center, is one of the most intriguing offerings in Under the Radar this year. Chimera, based on a real-life medical horror story, follows the life of fictional scientist Jennifer Samuels, who has just discovered that she possesses two sets of DNA—and therefore that the child she gave birth to is not, genetically, her real son. As we watch the character attempt to parse the psychological ramifications of this discovery, the play raises all kinds of questions about what happens when technology—and motherhood—shatter our ideas of who we are.

Stein and Holum’s artistic relationship began over a decade ago, as members of Philadelphia’s highly acclaimed and influential Pig Iron Theatre Company. In the early aughts, they worked together on much-lauded shows like Shut Eye and Anodyne, participating in the development of Pig Iron’s thoughtful, energetic approach to collaborative theater.

Among a number of excellent Pig Iron works that have been seen in New York, Under the Radar presented their Chekhov Lizardbrain in 2010; Pig Iron member James Sugg won an Obie for his performance in that show, and returns to U.T.R. as the sound designer of Chimera. Meanwhile, HERE, where Chimera was developed and will be performed, has presented two outstanding pieces by Rainpan 43, a collaboration between Pig Iron member Geoff Sobelle and fellow actor Trey Lyford, who was never involved with Pig Iron, but happens to be married to Suli Holum.

Attempting to keep track of all the work made by the multitasking Pig Iron group and its close colleagues over the past 10 years is difficult as both current and former members continue to seed new artistic communities in new cities, of which this fresh reunion of Stein and Holum, both now based in New York and pursuing their individual careers, is the latest.

“We are both driven and stubborn and precise,” said Stein, adding: “We believe in being rigorously adventurous.”

The process they followed in this collaboration would be different from the usual way new plays get made in New York, where it is typical for each artist to work in isolation, and in a specific pecking order: First the playwright writes the play, then the director takes it on and rehearses it with actors, while separately devising a scheme with designers, until finally, at the very end, the whole thing is handed over to the technical team.

To make Chimera, Stein and Holum upended this vertically organized way of working. First of all, as writer (Stein) and performer (Holum), they would co-direct, simultaneously co-authoring both text and performance from their vantage points on stage and off. (At a rehearsal I attended, the quirks of this style were evident as Holum, hidden inside her blocked location underneath the set’s kitchen sink, called the stage manager over to offer some notes.)

“We had a theory that went something like, 'If we invite our design team to make proposals from the very beginning, then we are going to end up with a theatrical event where all of the elements feel essential,'” Holum said, explaining why they chose to bring their costume designer along with them to an early, bare-bones reading of the play in Colorado. “We are going to end up with a design that is as eloquent as any words can be.

“We found designers who are not only game to work this way but who prefer it,” she added.

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