Dr. Egg and the Man with No Ear Redmoon Theater
"Ever since we evolved as hominids and developed bipedal locomotion, two limbs became manipulators and we constructed artifacts, instruments, and machines. In other words we have always been coupled with technology." —Statement of Stelarc at stelarc.va.com.au
When the Australian performance artist Stelarc (born in Cyprus as Stelios Arcadiou) had a cell-cultivated human ear grafted onto his forearm last year, it sparked a predictable controversy about art versus sensationalism. Stelarc isn't credited as an inspiration for Dr. Egg and the Man With No Ear, a fable about genetic manipulation created by fellow Aussies Jessica Wilson and Catherine Fargher and now in its U.S. premiere at Redmoon Theater under the direction of Wilson and Jim Lasko. But echoes of his "posthumanist" experiment permeate this visually stunning tale.
Only there's no embrace of medical technology here. Science is the enemy, as in some of our most enduring horror stories, perhaps most notably Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. (Though the notion that those who covet the powers of the gods will be horrendously punished predates the birth of the scientific method—consider Icarus.) And if you're already disturbed by the demonization of science and reason in our current political discourse, you won't find much to comfort you in this stacked deck of a show.
The opening images plainly lay out the point of view that curiosity is an impulse best kept in check. Jamie Clennett's stop-motion animation (first among equals in the rich visual work on display here) opens with a spreading lattice of branches and vines through which a green snake slithers insinuatingly. This evocation of Eden's serpent then morphs into the human form of a fussy and portentous narrator (Dominic Green), who warns of the "melee of mutations, the assortment of abominations" that we're about to see. Well, alrighty then. Thanks for doing the thinking for us.
The Man With No Ear (Brandon Boler) earns his name while taking his pregnant wife to the hospital on a bicycle. Attacked by a vicious dog, he loses control and crashes. The results: one dead wife, one living infant daughter, and one chewed-off ear.
Of the three, the man cares about the first two, but mostly about the third. Feminist theorist Rosalind Petchesky has noted that one side effect of contemporary fetal imaging techniques is that we've begun to see fetuses as autonomous beings—like the "space baby" in 2001—divorced from their connection to a living woman. Here, neither the man nor his winsome daughter ever expresses grief or regret about the dead mother. She may as well be a discarded incubator. Nor do the show's creators waste any energy on the moral implications of that absence of grief. But the missing ear bugs the shit out of the man—so much that he spends many depressive nights falling asleep in front of the television only to dream of earlike butterflies fluttering about his head. Even his daughter's attempts to cheer him up with cupcakes and walks on the beach fail to alleviate his self-pity.
When the girl comes across an ad for Dr. Egg (Adam Shalzi), an inventor who looks like he stumbled in from the video for Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science," she coaxes her father to give genetic regeneration a try. He balks at the lengthy list of disclaimers he's asked to sign; but the daughter, determined to give him what he apparently loves more than her, offers up some of her own cells to grow a new ear. Instead, she gets a creepy new relative. "Where are nature's furious winds, the crashing thunder of disapproval?" the narrator asks—and sure enough, there are none of the tesla coil/theremin effects that typically accompany scenes of science run amok. But the crashing thunder of disapproval? We're soaking in it!
When presidential candidates are expected to engage in televised "faith forums" but are never tested on critical questions of science and technology (so that we might have some means of measuring their competence on environmental and energy issues, for starters), concerns about the evolving ethics of science pale in comparison to those about religion in the public square. Fundamentalists who wish to enshrine their antiscientific viewpoints in school curricula actually exist. But despite the popular stereotypes exploited by Dr. Egg and the Man With No Ear, scientists are generally cautious, sober-minded types who follow exhaustive methodologies and systems of peer review not normally employed by those who claim to be the divinely inspired mouthpieces of God. If anything, the play makes a case against privatization and deregulation in the scientific realm—not against scientific research per se.
What's frustrating about the anti-intellectual scare tactics of Dr. Egg and the Man With No Ear is that they're married to one of the most visually savvy and well-acted pieces I've seen at Redmoon in the last couple years. In vivid contrast to the cartoonish little fashionistas depicted in last year's execrable look at female body image, The Princess Club, the daughter here (Rebecca Mauldin) is an enchanting and emotionally rich adolescent striving for parental approval and seeking her place in the world. A sequence where a puppet version of her swims with joyous abandon in the ocean is a highlight, though all of Graeme Davis's ingeniously scaled puppet creations blend into the live-performer sequences with breathtaking seamlessness. Lara Golan's original score provides a haunting soundscape, and Jonathan Oxlade's retro-mechanical design should delight the steampunks in the crowd.
But none of this makes up for the fact that Dr. Egg and the Man With No Ear exists not to raise provocative questions about genetic experimentation but to condemn it wholesale. Science can overstep. There's certainly room for a reasonable public debate about, say, the efficacy of embryonic stem-cell research in finding cures for progressive neurological disorders. But this show cruelly implies that those who wish to alleviate the pain and suffering of loved ones with such diseases are dangerously delusional, and that the diseases themselves are cosmetic—comparable to the loss of an ear. At the moment, the zealots of the religious right are much more to be feared than some hypothetical escapee from a research lab. Their attempts to stigmatize well-regulated medical research and its innumerable humane applications dovetail all too neatly with Dr. Egg and the Man With No Ear.v
Care to comment? Find this review on chicagoreader.com. And for more on theater, visit our blog Onstage.