“Assembled Identity” is a new play going on right now until May 19th at the HERE Theater in the West Village, just a few blocks from SoHo in New York City. This is an excellent play, intricate and sleek, and it’s a science fiction dystopia starring Mariana Newhard and Lipica Shah, created by Purva Bedi, Kristin Marting, and Mariana Newhard, directed by Kristin Marting, with sophisticated technological set design by Devid Bengali, Drew Weinstein, and Christina Tang, with Choreography by Alexandra Beller and costume design by Normandy Sherwood. Marting has special ties to HERE Theater, because the artist is one of the co-founders of the theater in 1993. This play is an achievement and you should go see it.
The blurb for the play on the HERE Theater’s website says, “When twin sisters discover they are actually clones, a blood-tingling reality comes sharply into focus. An imagined scenario so plausible it’s disturbing, Assembled Identity taps into our collective unease with a tech-dominant world. Using original and found text, live cinematography, and contemporary music, this electrifying duet delves into racial ambiguity, the science of identity formation, and the questions of who has the authority to define it.”
Fitting in with the dystopian themes of the play, immediately after the show when I went to sleep, I had a nightmare. In the nightmare, I scrolled through some clickbait on the internet until I found a news item about an artist who received a grant of thousands of dollars. What he did was, and here’s the horror, he ripped up the grant award letter and then scotch-taped it back together as a conceptual piece of art. In the dream, the artist said, “It is my joy,” quoting Marquis de Sade. So, this dream had a handful of what for me are subconscious fears and anxieties as an art critic: that art is fake, immoral, pretentious, and obsessed with money. Nevertheless, I know I’m a dyed-in-the-wool art critic, because in my dream I wasn’t horrified. I said, “I have got to review this guy!” Then I woke up.
In a word, consciousness doesn’t seem to be on the list of things that corrupt permanently when traumatized in the same way a paper crumples and my nightmare artist works to make an ersatz re-creation as a point that one cannot do such a thing. In a contemporary example, philosopher Martha Nussbaum used the example of Phineas Gage in her book Upheavals of Thought, because Gage suffered a severe blow to the skull in a mining accident. Nussbaum pointed out Gage not only survived after his injury, instead he moved to South America and became a stage coach driver. The philosopher thinks this is an example of what neuroscience and psychology calls plasticity, which is the change-ability and mutability of one’s brain. Thus, however much popular culture might say brains can shatter like glass – the stuff of theater often has nervous breakdowns where a character is, “not the same,” – there’s a case to be made that consciousness is fluid, that consciousness is personal and subjective, and that consciousness is to an extent controllable. The consoling part of a child’s tantrum is the fact that it will end, that the giant egg in the nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” might break, but the child will get over it.
The plot of “Assembled Identity” is two sisters awaken as subjects in a lab, which is run as a corrupted United States Centers for Disease Control. Even though the sisters volunteered for the experiments, they find they can’t leave. As the play progresses, they find out that they aren’t twins at all, and in fact are clones. Some clones were specifically made better and others defective, and later in the play they find out it’s all part of some grand Eugenics scheme.
All of these subjects are dark, which is interesting because the play does have a certain lightheartedness, even without many jokes or points of humor. The two actresses have songs and choreographed dance routines, and again, the surprising feature of these interludes is they absolutely build the action and describe the anxieties without succumbing to absurdity that they don’t belong, or worse, taking the easy way out and reducing the play’s sincerity to jokes. Again, these are narrative effects in the play, and so they dovetail the drama without any dissonance or frivolity. During certain dance routines and songs I was reminded of philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, about how the Cold War created an idiotic reductionist logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, such that there was only one dimension of debate.
The lights and pyrotechnics of this show alone would make going to see this play worth it. They are wonderful. I was impressed by the projection display and how well-crafted it was, and here the actresses and writers rise to the occasion of the technology by acting out different languages and dialects of the clones worldwide. In sum, the technology in this play describes the scientific dystopia; the technology was cool to look at; and finally, the actresses and writers used the technology to raise their game and show different nationalities and personalities worldwide at ambitious scale.
In Hegel’s Phenomenology, the philosopher talks about consciousness, which we might compare as though consciousness were an amoeba bacteria cell. One cell cleaves and reproduces, and then there’s two cells. For Hegel, one has consciousness, and on second thought, she has two consciousnesses, and finally that second thought mediates and is a critical lens for and with the first thought. This process has been variously described and translated as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And not to be outdone by oversimplification, Hegel applies this lesson to an individual alone (one person), and to her interpersonal relationships (two people), and even to society at large (many people). This process can be beautiful, as in our floral amoeba, and often the process can be weird or violent, as many people who had brothers and sisters while growing up can attest. For a consequence of all of this mumbo-jumbo with “Assembled Identity” in mind, eventually certain Hegel scholars say if you’re not an individual, you don’t have the the right to criticize corruption in society or the government. Therefore, minority status is crucially important and nontrivial to a functioning society.
Against its tragic ending, I left “Assembled Identity” feeling optimistic and inspired. The show ends with a sibling rivalry, and I won’t give away the ending, but its philosophical underpinnings and what it seeks for the audience transcends, and seems more important than the narrative. It works. I felt stronger as a person in my identity going out than when I came in. “Assembled Identity” ended up assembling me!