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"Exceptionally well crafted, emotionally grounded, and thought-provoking."
The play, a sort of humanistic/science fiction exploration of what human cloning might really be like, is a great example of why a Gunderson script is so appealing. Delving into the serious implications of creating human beings outside the natural order, Gunderson has one character express it this way: “God is pissed off because you’re messing with his shit.” And later in the play, she has another character say in chilling tones, “It’s not right to play God…and fail.”
Science fiction, even if it’s on the verge of becoming non-fiction, is a tough sell on stage. Somehow, creating an alternate version of our existing world in another time and space is more the purview of film than of stage, which doesn’t really make sense except that it’s easier to create a seemingly fully formed vision of a real world on film than it is on stage, which always seems a little rough around the edges.
Think about all those great plays set in deep space…oh, wait.
So what Gunderson, working with director Mina Morita, crafts is a human-scale drama focusing on people directly involved in the advancement of cloning technology. Their motivations and the real-life consequences of science are at the heart of this 70-minute drama, which soars in its one-on-one relationships and falters when it veers into more thriller-like aspects of the story (on the run from shadowy government figures! Big Brother-like surveillance!).
Michael Patrick Gaffney is devoted dad Steven, a doctor who was at the forefront of the race to clone a human after successful trials with dogs and cats. Once he succeeded creating a human clone, who unbeknownst to her was his daughter, Denise (Jennifer Le Blanc), he fled the field and watched as cloning clinics became overwhelmed with customers wanting a custom-made human.
The problem, it turns out, is that something wasn’t quite right with Steven’s science. The cloned humans begin to falter in their teen years, become sick and die. But somehow Steven’s daughter is perfectly healthy at 18, and the government wants to know why. That’s the big picture. The smaller picture is Denise finding out that she’s a clone – not a clone of a dead child, like so many of the other clones out there, but a clone of her father’s wife, also named Denise (and also played by Le Blanc in flashbacks and fantasy sequences), who was killed in a car accident.
Reacting like a teenager, which is to say with sass and belligerence, Denise pummels her father with questions, and when she asks where she was actually conceived or made, her father says, “Vancouver.” “I’m a clone and I’m Canadian?” she replies in utter horror. You gotta love the Gunderson wit.
When Denise blots and begins seeking her own answers, her investigation leads her to the death bed of another young clone (Bari Robinson) who was made in his dead brother’s image. He’s understandably bitter about the science that created him and now has left him to die, but he knows the real toll will be felt by his mother. “I’m not sure I can make her go to the same funeral for a different son,” he says.
Gaffney and Le Blanc are superb. At first it’s sort of annoying that Le Blanc is so obviously not a teenager, but then when she returns as the original Denise, it’s rather a startling transformation and the actor’s differentiation between the two women comes into clear focus. A scene toward the end of the play in which she plays both women almost simultaneously is nothing short of astonishing.
Robinson and Lynne Hollander play various supporting roles, including the governmental talking heads, which seem superfluous to the action. And Gaffney’s character, though fully realized as a father, seems underdone as a scientist. There’s a reason his cloning of his daughter worked and the cloning of all the kids after left didn’t. It seems like he knows that reason or that there’s something he still hasn’t divulged, but the play ends before we get there.
Intriguing and well produced, By and By makes a big theatrical leap and mostly succeeds in creating a vision of a time when, as Gunderson puts it, “impossibility becomes normal.”
World Premiere of By and By continues at Shotgun's Ashby Stage
Wednesday, May 29th
A growing number of playwrights grapple with the ethical issues of science and technology. Tom Stoppard was a pioneer, and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen was a memorable exploration of nuclear physics and the responsibilities of scientists. In the Bay Area, Stanford’s Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the Pill, has a minor sideline as a playwright writing about science.
By And By, which debuted at Shotgun Players last week, wrestles with the dilemmas posed by full human cloning. But the compelling twist in Lauren Gunderson’s play is that it focuses on human emotions in a very recognizable world, rather than confecting some science fiction fantasy of the material.
By And By is an intimate drama about a leading scientist and his daughter, who was cloned from his beloved wife, killed in a car accident. It opens with the daughter’s discovery of her origin, which Gunderson handles with both wit and insight.
“It was quite organic,” says Steven, the scientist-father.
“I am not a tomato!” responds Denise, the daughter.
Jennifer Le Blanc, who plays Denise, is particularly strong in the production, directed by Mina Morita.
Berkeleyside spoke to Gunderson about the play and her fascination with science.
“I find science is one of the larger things we can write about,” Gunderson said. “Cloning seemed to me one that has only been done in a sci-fi way, and in a dark, forboding way. The reality is these scientific advancements will be part fascination and technological, but where it’s going to live is inside the human experience. Human relationships haven’t changed for thousands of years, no matter what technology brings us.”
Gunderson’s husband is a biologist, and she said that he helped her think about cloning in a nuanced way, particularly how it might affect relationships.
“We’re looking less at the aha moment and more at the uh oh moment,” she said. “What does it mean for other people. We write about people who take a risk and maybe shouldn’t have done what they did.”
Science is often regarded, Gunderson said, as something technical or abstract, which doesn’t make for “great story or great emotion.”
“I was lucky to have a great physics teacher in high school who taught us about the scientists as well as the science,” she said. “Discoveries are enormously dramatic moments.”
“People presume (new technology) is going to be awful and dangerous, and some people will say it’s evil and an abomination,” Gunderson said. “But often the science that emerges will bring us all sorts of things. We frankly don’t know what will happen.”
On cloning itself, Gunderson said writing the play had convinced her of the potential for the technology.
“I’m pretty excited about this technology,” she said. “What the play is trying to say is it shouldn’t be completely disallowed, but it should be regulated and cared for.”
Theater of the Autoimmune System
by George Heymont
Friday, June 7th
My Cultural Landscape
Back in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the confidentiality of clinical testing was a major source of paranoia as fear spread about people's privacy being compromised. With the current wave of paranoia following revelations about how the National Security Agency has been mining data collected from phone companies and Internet service providers, the Shotgun Players' world premiere production of Lauren Gunderson's new play, By and By, could not be a more timely event.
At the center of Gunderson's 70-minute dramedy is a young woman who is in perfect health. And that's exactly where the problem lies. As the play begins, 18-year-old Denise (Jennifer LeBlanc) is justifiably angry with the single dad who raised her and made her the center of his life. Not only is Steven (Michael Patrick Gaffney) a retired biotechnologist who once worked in a Vancouver laboratory, he's got a huge secret.
Change that. Steven HAD a huge secret until very recently. After being hit with a double whammy, Denise confronts her father with the hard-to-handle truth: "You mean I'm a clone AND I'm Canadian?" she screams.
When faced with a furious female teenager, a scientist's attempt to act paternal and take a clinical approach to the situation can only make matters worse. Much, much worse.
Denise's biological mother was pregnant when she was killed in an automobile accident (Steven was riding in the passenger seat at the time). In his grief, Steven used his knowledge from the experiments he and his colleagues had been conducting to clone his dead wife. Dazed and confused by his loss, he even gave the product of his experiment the same name as his recently deceased spouse.
Although Steven soon left his job and tried to disappear, word of his experiment got out. Soon, other parents who had lost children in accidents were willing to pay any price to have their dead child cloned. However, something went horribly wrong with those children, who all became ill and died by the time they were 15.
All except Denise, who is 18 years old and appears to be in perfectly good health. Needless to say, inquiring minds want to know why.
As she demonstrated in Exit, Pursued By a Bear, Gunderson knows how to simultaneously mine a prickly situation for comedy and rage. Not only does the actress playing Denise get to portray an angry teenager running away from home, she also gets to portray the ghost of her mother (who, to no one's surprise, looks just like her).
Denise's sudden visit with her Aunt Amanda (Lynne Hollander) is less than helpful due to the old woman's dementia. Her poignant meeting with a cloned teenage boy (Bari Robinson) who knows that he is doomed, allows her to leave clues that will help her frantic father to track her down. As Gunderson explains:
"This play is about love -- first, second, and third. It's also about a quickly shifting society in the murky middle ground between scientific ability and public acceptance. It's about one man's accountability. And yes, it's about cloning. Cloning is coming. It's coming, it's complicated, and it's troubling. Or perhaps it's life-saving and miraculous. Or perhaps it's nothing like we expect it to be. In all cases, whatever science hands us in the coming decades, it will hand it to our hearts. It will hand it to real families and real fathers, and real friends. It will hand it to you. What breaks our hearts does not change, even as our world does. So may we be lucky enough to love who we love through it all."
Working on a beautiful unit set designed by Robert Broadfoot (with projections by Rebecca Longworth), Mina Morita has directed By and By with a superb sense of dramatic tension and comic rage. Jennifer LeBlanc gives a powerhouse performance as both the older and younger Denise, while audiences can only feel anguished for her desperate and confused father (beautifully portrayed by Michael Patrick Gaffney). Lynne Hollander and Bari Robinson appear in multiple supporting roles.
Shotgun's By and By Wrestles with Cloning, Relationships
Friday, June 7th
By and By, Shotgun’s latest offering, posits that when mortals attempt to play God, they invite the wrath of both science and conscience. The playwright Lauren Gunderson is interested in exploring the micro, rather than the macro aspects of this explosive issue.
This world premiere drama revolves around this concept: “Every choice we make is tempered by the past that we know, and the future that we imagine.”
Is Steven a doctor who knows too much about cloning for his own good? Steven has a major secret, and before the evening is over, you’ll share it.
Modern scientists are at the forefront of the possibilities of human cloning and its controversial ethics. Steven stands at the eye of this hurricane… for now.
For Gaffney, Art Imitates Life
by Lou Fancher
Thursday, June 20
Contra Costa Times
Remember this line: "The fundamental work of the world (is) the loop of nothing to everything."
It comes near the end of playwright Lauren Gunderson's "By and By," in a production presented by Berkeley's Shotgun Players, with its last performance this Sunday, June 23. It features Moraga-based actor Michael Patrick Gaffney as "Steven," the tussle-haired, geekish father of a college-aged daughter who's just discovered she's a science experiment.
Cloned from the genes of "Denise," her namesake/mother, and horrified by the lies her father has told her in a misguided effort to protect her from the truth, the play begins amid a raging father-daughter quarrel. As the heat of their argument chars their live's narrative facade, Steven and Denise tread on the brittle emotional shards left by the car accident that swept the 24-year-old wife/mother from their world.
"Nothing to everything" refers not only to human cloning, but to translating human existence into functional, eternal circularity, and that has everything to do with Gaffney.
Twenty-nine years ago, he was a 19-year-old college junior living near his childhood home in Broken Arrow, Okla. The Monday after Thanksgiving weekend, he got a call from his father.
"He said, 'Your sister has been killed in an accident.' It was 1984, she was 23. Single car crash. I had just seen her," he says, sounding rather like he's reading a scripted news report.
His sister Christine was driving late at night, on the way to visit her boyfriend. Gaffney says the family never knew the circumstances of the accident. "They didn't have air bags and it was Oklahoma at night -- she probably wasn't wearing a seat belt."
Gaffney's a professional, so delving into a role to exhume the quirks and desires under a character's surface is natural. Usually, the job requires a degree of simulation, correlating a related experience by "playing pretend." Actors visit prisons or spend a day teaching a classroom of screaming kindergartners or shadow a chef, for example.
But when art imitates life, Gaffney wondered, does the process differ? During the course of the new play's ever-changing development and its performance run through June 23, he's finding surprising answers.
"My preparation process is not the same, but it never is," he says. "I researched grief and I have a phrase I keep in a notebook. I read it before I go onstage: 'Steven's pain, his grief, is dark and deep: have the courage to go there.' "
Notably, with all his methodical preparation, Gaffney didn't talk to his parents or his two remaining siblings about his sister's death. Perhaps because he never really has. But that doesn't mean it hasn't shaped and informed him just as much as the genes he inherited from his parents.
"It changed my family forever. It's an overlooked grief. When you lose a sibling, you're dealing with the parents' loss. There's guilt that you're alive and your sister is dead," he says. "And with sudden death, it doesn't allow preparation, the way an illness does."
Gaffney initially softened the blow with alcohol and by "grieving loudly, like loud, Irish Catholics do." His father never expressed his feelings and his mother didn't "come back to life" until Gaffney's niece was born and the birth signaled beauty and hope. But Catherine's death made one thing easier -- when he told his parents he was gay, acceptance was immediate.
"After you lose a child, the fact that your son is gay is really no big deal," he says.
It would be simplistic -- and false -- to say Gaffney auditioned for "By and By" out of a subconscious need to address his own "dark and deep" pain. Instead, the play's science and not-too-distant-future setting intrigued him. If given the chance to clone his sister, he says he wouldn't, because "it wouldn't be her: a person is their circumstances."
Still, after meditatively pacing through his family history like a labyrinth, his equity actor control cracks and the fundamental loop of his life's work leads to genuine tears and gentle revelation.
"As actors, we do substitutions, we personalize a role. It's been a long time since my sister was killed. You know, I think I got to be with her again, for a brief time. I got to remember her. With death, it's the saddest thing, to think you'll be forgotten."
Hills Actress Loves Acting, Sees It as Way of Practicing Compassion
by Lou Fancher
Thursday, June 20
If actor/writer Jennifer Le Blanc moves from live theater to films, she'll probably play a superhero with formidable biceps, bad teeth, a limp, and the ability to see through walls.
Le Blanc likes to play against type.
Her resume begins with a high school stint as the Artful Dodger, runs through most of Shakespeare, waltzes in and out of Jane Austen and in "By and By," a Shotgun Players production running through June 23, which includes dual roles as wife/lover/daughter/chemistry experiment.
"One of the reasons I love acting is that it's an opportunity to practice compassion. You spend your life playing another character. You have to find humanity, even in an evil villain," she says.
Le Blanc has had plenty of "compassion practice" in the last few, busy years. After living and working bicoastally, she's let her New York apartment go and established the Montclair home she shares with her husband, Gregg, as ground zero.
"We fell in love with the Oakland hills. It has village shops, it's close to BART and we can hike in nature, near the city. It's the best of all worlds," she says.
Just because she's "settled," doesn't mean she's put the brakes on a lifetime as a mover. Growing up in Novato in Marin County, she studied ballet. At Cal, she chose English literature as her major. A guest gig in a Shakespeare play at her high school alma matter realigned her goals when theater director Randall Stuart offered to shepherd her career.
"He launched me," she says, simply.
After gaining text, vocal and physical "finishing" skills and a master's in fine arts at Colorado's National Theatre Conservatory, Le Blanc sailed onto the boards at TheatreWorks, Livermore, Marin and San Francisco Shakespeare Festivals, Word for Word, San Jose Stage Company (where her Austen adaptation recently premiered) and more. And now, joining Shotgun for the first time in playwright Lauren Gunderson's exploration of human cloning, family, truth-telling and "the real stuff of life," Le Blanc is ironically not playing against type.
Le Blanc is Denise, the daughter of Steven, a scatter-haired scientist whose pioneering forays into the sci-fi world of human cloning miraculously resulted in a healthy, living, breathing -- and swearing like a sailor when she discovers her petri dish origins -- child. Denise is bright, emotional, and vulnerable, just like Le Blanc. But Le Blanc is also insightful, sexy, elegantly sturdy, and supremely capable and so it seems entirely appropriate that she also plays the older Denise, deceased wife of Steven and DNA contributor to the younger Denise.
It would be confusing, except Le Blanc is masterful in the two roles. Parsing out opposing physicalities (a teenager's schlump-tense jumble versus a spouse's easy, hands-on intimacy) and differentiating vocal registers (mumble or rat-a-tat for the daughter and low, smoky tones for the wife), she builds two complex parts into a muscular, intricate, theatrical firmament.
"It was a wonderful opportunity, figuring out distinct characters who are also the same people -- that's rare," she says.
Also rare is her work with the Arabian Shakespeare Festival. Officially founded in January 2013, but dating back to 2010, the Santa Clara company is involved in a pilot program with the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain.
"In 2012, I went with two other actors to workshop Shakespeare with Arabic women," LeBlanc explains. "It was life changing."
Introducing the female students to theater principles was groundbreaking and, not unpredictably, Shakespeare's thematic material tore up the terrain. A "Midsummer's Night's Dream" scene, where a daughter is dragged before a father and told she must marry his groom of choice, caused the actors to "laugh until our bellies ached, then cry," Le Blanc recalls. "A student from a progressive country would say, 'That used to happen, but it doesn't anymore.' Next to her, a woman would sob, rendered speechless by her different circumstance. The play will never be the same for me."
As "By and By" completes its run, Le Blanc is already in rehearsals for a June 27 Livermore Shakespeare Festival opening of "The Taming of the Shrew."
"When I get a chance to go and say beautiful words in a transformative space ... ," she says, pausing with an actor's dramatic timing, "Well, this world is a wonderful place, but we can make it better. Theater's uniquely suited to do that."