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A CurtainUp Review
Informed Consent
Now that we can trace our genome, we're finally able to read the greatest story every told — the history of our species, written in our cells. And what is it telling us? That we're all cousins! There is a single mutation in the genes of every one of us that we can trace back to one woman in Africa, only a hundred fifty thousand years ago. — Jillian
Informed Consent
(from left) DeLanna Studi and Tina Benko (Photo: James Leynse.)
The very real and well documented conflict and subsequent legal battle between science researchers at Arizona State University and the Havasupai Native American tribe provide the basis for Deborah Zoe Laufer's engrossing and provocative play Informed Consent. The drama, now being presented by Primary Stages and Ensemble Studio Theatre at the Duke Theatre, touches on quite a few moral and ethical issues, but mainly on a scientific one: The attempt by Jillian (Tina Benko), a genetic anthropologist, to pursue and find clues to the devastating increase of diabetes in the tribe. To do this, she has to obtain permission to take their blood samples. The samples are obtained with the approval of associate Ken (fine performance by Jesse J. Perez) a soon-enough suspicious social anthropologist, working under the supervision of the University's Dean Hagan (severity personified by the always excellent Myra Lucretia Taylor.).

Although the tribe is reluctant to be used for this or any research, its governing body gives approval after listening to reasons to support it by Arella (Delanna Studi), a highly educated spokesperson for the tribe who discovers too late that she has not been told the entire truth. Studi, who has re-traced her own family's footsteps along the Trail of Tears for a live theatrical experience, is an empowering presence in the play, especially when she discovers that the testing has been used to include research into other diseases and with particular regard to the tribe's origins through DNA testing.

The soul-searching pro and con arguments regarding science, religious beliefs and tribal myths as constituting ultimate truth take up a significant portion of the play— especially Jillian's dilemma as she also battles with early on-set Alzheimer's, the disease that killed her mother. Her determination to conduct DNA tests is caused in part by her fear that her four year-old daughter Natalie (also played by Ms. Studi) may have inherited a propensity for the disease. She doesn't take into account that her testing has disproved the tribe's story of its origin. Benko, who recently played Marianne3 in Ivo Van Hove's Scenes from a Marriage, is excellent and believable, a tough cookie who is believable every step of the way from being fully in charge to ultimately being totally debilitated by what in the end remains, at least for her in the now, a genomic puzzler.

The reality of Jillian's condition and her disintegrating relationship with the scientific heads at the University and with the Native Americans who feel betrayed is not any better at home. There she is at odds with her Asian husband Graham (Pun Bandhu), a gentle children's book author who doesn't want to know her findings. The tense scenes between Jillian and Graham are fueled by their impassioned and opposing views on why their daughter's DNA should not be tested. One amusing scene finds Jillian requesting DNA samples from the mothers at Jillian's school.

The ninety-minute play, under Liesl Tommy's expert direction, is performed in a quasi-non-realistic manner with the multi-racial cast playing multiple characters, used to underscore the consideration of making us all as Jillian's suggests "cousins." They speak in clusters as a unified chorus. These moments are smoothly embedded into the more traditional narrative. The clever design structure by Wilson Chin provides a high archival-like wall that is flanked by four metal spiral ladders that imply the configuration of the genomic double helix.

Laufer, whose plays have been produced at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and many of the country's leading regional theaters, has created a disquieting but also invigorating play as well as a supposition: That the results of scientific research may be as stunningly indeterminate and inconclusive as is the belief and dependence we have on our eternal myths to validate who and what we are. This theme pervades throughout this thought-provoking play.

Scheduled: A series of Thursday night panel discussions featuring cast and creative team in conversation with members of the Native American and medical community. For links to various science and math related plays reviewed at Curtainup click here .

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