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An Immaculate Misconception


The Singapore Repertory Theatre


Marcus Tan






DBS Arts Centre



Sex, Science & Morality

Written by novelist, playwright and Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, Carl Djerassi, and directed by Vienna-born Isabella Gregor, An Immaculate Misconception revolves around the issues of reproductive technology - in particular, Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI). Dr Prudence Tam (played by local actress Beatrice Chia) is a pioneer researcher of this reproductive technique. With age catching up, Tam desires a child and is desperate to conceive. With both desires being complementary, Tam decides that the best specimen of ICSI technology would be herself. She steals sperm from her long-distance lover Nigel Turner (played by Briton Oliver Tobias) in one of her many sessions of passion and gets her co-researcher, Dr Felix Frankenthaler (played by Briton Joe McGann), to assist her in injecting the single sperm into the egg. The comedy of errors begins when Frankenthaler decides to inject his own sperm into another of Tam's eggs both of which are later reinserted into her uterus. The resulting birth of Adam, the first ICSI baby (the allusion to the first Adam is apparent), sparks off a controversy over such reproductive technology which then forms the central concern of the play.

It would be fairly justified to claim that An Immaculate Misconception was somewhat dry, monotonous and even jargonistic (with scientific terms being employed extensively throughout the performance). The play started off somewhat slowly with a general lethargy both in the acting and performative atmosphere. The audience was compelled to follow the intensely dialogue-driven performance which at moments became tedious and weighty. However, the "foreignness" of this scientific issue is also the play's strength - Djerassi employs art to educate about science; a seeming antithesis that finds synthesis in the play. Scientific terms were defined by characters and what could have been an intensely scientifically driven script was nicely balanced by the strong humanist and ethical issues raised in the later acts of the play. The second half intrigued the audience with the controversies of ICSI - humanist considerations similar to abortion and genetic engineering. To Frankenthaler, Adam is merely an icon of scientific supremacy; to Tam, he is a successful scientific project turned object of affection. For Turner, Adam is a son regardless of the procedures by which he was conceived.

While the play had a captivating theme, the acting paled in comparison. Chia's actions were often unnatural and awkward with exaggerated hand gestures and expressions reminiscent of high school performance styles. Though lucid and eloquent, Chia did not manage to evoke the complexity that is Prudence Tam and could not portray the character convincingly. Tam is a character of depth that grows, develops and changes as the play progresses (particularly with her response and reaction to ICSI). However, Chia did not seem to be able to embody and corporealise that change.

The cast also lacked chemistry and a sense of being an ensemble though the individual characters of Turner and Frankenthaler were sufficiently portrayed. The experience of watching was one of merely witnessing a verbal interaction between the actors. The dynamics of the relationships between the three characters - the subtleties and the non-linguistic signals - were woefully inadequate and weak. Although the actors seemed to have warmed up in the second half, resulting in an increase in intensity and rhythm of the performance, much of the performative potential was lost.

However, what makes the play appealing is not only the provocative issues it raised but also the witty script. Djerassi's puns and allusions to the sexual act (the injection of the sperm into the embryo, in the ICSI sequence, is constantly compared to the "thrust" and "insertions" more commonly and ordinarily understood) often broke the monotony of the dialogue and stirred humour, although there was a surfeit of this at times. Djerassi's context-specific script also makes for closer identification with the audience. The play is set in Singapore and many of the prevailing issues such as the greying population and low birth rates were cleverly interwoven into the central ethical concerns about reproductive and scientific research.

What was most engaging, yet disturbing at the same time, was perhaps the way in which the performance constantly reiterated the notions of "mechanical reproduction/reproducibility". The subtitle of the play, "Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction", is, as Djerassi affirms, an allusion to Walter Benjamin's essay, The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction. While the play's focus is on the ways in which sex and human reproduction are no longer synonymous, and how human reproduction can now be a mechanical and technical process, the play itself, as a work of art, exemplifies the tenets of Benjamin's essay. The notions of mechanical reproducibility were accentuated not only thematically, as seen in the long-distance email romance between Tam and Turner, but also illustrated in screenings of the email conversations and the hypnotising tap-sounds of the keyboard which were intelligently fused with the soundtrack. The sets, music and digitised soundscape were all processes and products of mechanical reproduction used to create the work of art. In addition, the screening of ICSI procedures in Scene 5 (as Tam and Frankenthaler perform the procedure themselves), based on actual fertilisations, reinforce the notions of reproducibility - in not just science but art as well.

The play was thus engaging because it meta-dramatically performed its thematic concern. Then again, the disturbance comes with the realisation that the play opens itself to further questioning: Benjamin remarks, in his essay, the loss of an "aura" - the phenomenon of distance - that which withers in the face of mechanical reproduction. The unique existence is lost in the face of a plurality of copies. What is the "aura" which is lost as a consequence of ICSI? Is it a mere detachment from the domain of tradition? What is the "tradition" that is severed here then? What is the "aura" of the work of art that is the play since it is now mechanically reproduced - not merely exemplified by the processes but by the various stagings of the play as well?

In all, if one were to ignore the above questions that the performance itself had evoked rather than provided answers to, An Immaculate Misconception was entertaining and enlightening, and the issues raised provoked much thought about the direction of scientific research today.

"What could have been an intensely scientifically driven script was nicely balanced by the strong humanist and ethical issues raised"

More Reviews of Productions by The Singapore Repertory Theatre

Previous Reviews by Marcus Tan
godeatgod by The Necessary Stage

Obsessive Repulsive Madness by In Source Theatre

The Lover and The Dumb Waiter by luna-id

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.