Live theater hasn’t historically been the most effective medium for science fiction, but local playwright and dramaturge Jacqueline Goldfinger thinks that’s changing.
She’s written a new play, “Babel” (like the tower), that figures to be among a new breed of stage productions that make sci-fi work for live theater audiences.
Directed by Deborah Block, “Babel” envisions a not-too-distant future where rapid advances in genetics — and their sinister byproduct, eugenics — have created an environment where expecting parents can know what their child will look like and act like shortly after conception. And that’s not just for their own edification but as a matter of the fictional society’s official policy.
“It asks questions,” Goldfinger said of her new play, “about where we think the dividing lines are, morally and ethically, about how much we know, or should know, about a child in utero.”
The world of Goldfinger’s creation is inspired by developments she sees shaping our future every day, like the collision of rapidly advancing technologies and climate change, and is set in the near future, as opposed to the distant future, precisely because “the research that’s happening on reproductive technologies is going so fast, I didn’t want to be outpaced by the technology.”
In this dystopian dramedy that Goldfinger likens to a fusion of sci-fi staples like “Gattaca” and “Divergent,” shot-through with the dark humor of Netflix’s “Black Mirror,” children are screened before birth to determine whether they will be genetically suitable for a society in which places are at a premium.
“You can get very specific test results on what the probabilities are around what type of behaviors your child will have,” Goldfinger said of the “Babel” screening regimen. “And with dwindling resources and with climate change, there’s this question of how many people should be born so we can sustain life on the planet.”
A negative test result in this carefully curated society means a preordained life as a second-class citizen, or worse.
Conflict ensues when two couples — longtime friends who are both expecting — receive drastically different test results. It’s predicted that one couple’s child will become extremely violent, which naturally drives a wedge between the two young families. It brings to mind the kinds of rifts that must have come between families living in Nazi Germany, where eugenics programs thrived and laws discriminating against so-called untermenschen, society’s undesirables, were numerous.
It’s not a new theme. What is new are the methods for ferreting-out the supposedly inferior. The part that’s simultaneously most disturbing and compelling is that while Goldfinger has surely exercised some artistic license with these methods, they’re mostly born out of her recent experiences.
Goldfinger is the mother of healthy, active 7-year-old twins.
“They’re your typical annoying 7-year-olds that you don’t want to have to sit next to in a restaurant,” Goldfinger joked.
During the pregnancy, there was a test that indicated there could be a health issue with one of the twins. Everything turned out all right, she said, but the experience got Goldfinger’s writer’s mind working.
“I started doing research on where in-utero testing was going, and my mind was blown at how far we have come,” she said, also noting that such testing has been more loosely regulated here than elsewhere. “So people are coming here to do it. We, as Americans, are going to be on the front lines of ‘what is this testing, what does it do, and how do we decide what to do?’”
“Right now we can’t do everything that the play is talking about,” Goldfinger continued, “but that’s where they’re heading.”
While “Babel” is a play with an earnest forewarning challenging viewers to consider weighty questions, it also features a character who’s a 6-foot-tall magical talking stork.
Careful not to give too much away, Goldfinger did reveal that while the character does initially serve as comic relief, the stork’s presence is more than gratuitous absurdism.
“There is a sci-fi element twist that makes him much more than comic relief and pushes us to ask even more questions.”
And that’s how you know you’ve seen a play written by a Jewish playwright at her best — you leave contemplating several new questions with no ready-made answers.
Goldfinger, a member of Society Hill Synagogue, where her twins attend Sunday school, also teaches in Temple University’s MFA theater program, where, she said, they’ve given her the freedom to shape much of her own curriculum.
If Goldfinger’s prediction about how sci-fi is trending in theater circles proves correct, Temple may have found someone at the vanguard of a major movement in contemporary theater.
Goldfinger acknowledges that sci-fi has gone through growing pains in live theater — plays tried to imitate books and movies and the result was too often “clunky and weird and campy,” she said.
But, now, she believes that staged sci-fi is about to have its moment.
“We’re going to see a really exciting explosion (of sci-fi on the stage) in the next decade,” she said. “It’s really about to bust out.”
After debuting in Kansas City, Missouri, last month, Goldfinger’s “Babel” will run from Feb. 13-Mar. 8 at Theatre Exile in South Philadelphia.