THE RED-CARPETED OPENING NIGHT
It is Saturday evening in the heart of Basel’s old town. It could be a normal winter evening, were it not for the steady stream of people outside the Scala Theater on Freie Strasse. A local TV crew is poised along the red carpet in front of the entrance. For all curious onlookers, the poster “TEST – DIE ROCKOPER WELTPREMIERE” provides the answer to this unusual Saturday night buzz in Basel’s main shopping street.
I am slightly early, so I decide to circle the melee to try and catch a flavor of what’s coming. Two teenage girls dressed in TEST t-shirts are looking very rock and fan-like, so I decide to speak to them. I learn that they manage the TEST fan page on Facebook. They discovered the world of TEST through the German band famous for mixing traditional and modern genres – voXXclub – that Stefan Raaflaub (Alex in TEST) sings in.
As if on cue, I meet other Voxxclub members. They are here to support Stefan. Christian, a voXXclub member, is chuffed to see one of his bandmates perform in a rock musical, and together with his other two bandmates is here to “feel and be inspired by a different musical world,” he says, adding that he loves the music of TEST. I can really feel the earnestness behind his words. Meanwhile, the Swiss TV cameras have captured a celebrity that is now being ushered indoors.
I look around and see that the queue to get in the doors has grown, as the crowd is now eager to get settled into their seats. As I make my way, I bump shoulders with Sarah Caddick, who is the science advisor to Lord Sainsbury in London. Sarah is a major player in the science field in the U.K. and a serious theater patron. I ask Sarah to sum up her take on TEST in three words, and she instantly responds: “compelling, powerful and provocative.” I later learn that Sarah has been a key part of the TEST journey and is keen to see TEST, with its theme of gene editing, land on London shores very soon.
The bell rings, coats are hurriedly removed and prosecco glasses parked. I catch a glimpse of Ritschi, the well-known Swiss musical actor. Other major stars from the Swiss music scene, such as Bo Katzman, are also in the lobby of the theater, waiting for the show to begin. There is a sense of fun, excitement and revelation that only the opening night of TEST could bring
TEST begins with the anguished voice of Luke, played by Swiss rock star Marc Storace of Krokus fame. The amazing vocals and heart-wrenching lyrics jolt the audience, as the desolate drifter Luke takes his own life using pills and alcohol, only to be transported to the ethereal land of the Gods.
Here the discourse shifts to the “bigger” questions while the mood becomes lighter. Egos, purpose and humanity’s course are all charted in a light-hearted manner on a staged Mount Olympus. The audience sympathizes with Luke, a dejected down-and-outer lost in the tribulations of life. At the same time, the audience feels the drama unfold in this new moment in history, whereby old conventions, beliefs and Gods are deemed futile in the face of gene editing.
The show then shifts to the world of Happyville and its inhabitants – the oh-so-happy Happyvillers. They are the perfect Jonses, with their trimmed lawns, white picket fences and gleaming smiles. The whole town sings in unison: “we’re as happy as can be.”
The characters are deepened in Act Two, and the audience connects with the dramatized lives of Sophie, Luke, Tim, Tina, Alex, Tony and Dr Cunningham. Theater-goers are immersed in the world of ethical issues that is polarizing science and society. To test or not to test? To save or not to save? To design or not to design? To genetically optimize or not?
As these moral dilemmas are thrashed out, the single voice of Dr. Cunningham, the geneticist, rings hollow: “Gene editing – I am on the verge of a breakthrough!” This statement and the accompanying music drives shivers down the spine. Is science a one-man/elite group show? Is it really true that a small percentage of humans control a wider group? Do they get away with it unless a smart hacker decides to hit the print button?
Amongst these probing themes, the audience feels connected with the individual journeys of the characters. Tina’s sadness at losing Tim, her brother, is a real disconnect from the pasty smiles of the rest of the Happyvillers. Her search for purpose, to the point of being a social justice warrior on the streets of Happyville, is a tragic-comic moment as she seeks purpose and utility in the depths of her own sadness, only to be rejected by a clone! The final scene, as the town banishes Dr. Cunningham, shows the wrath of the mob and the need to be unified, irrespective of purpose. It also shows how quickly science can be turned on its head.
AND IT’S A HAPPY ENDING
TEST raises the ethical questions of gene editing intimately and elegantly, using realistic characters who in their own way reach out to everybody in the audience. At the end, some deeper questions are raised: what does it mean to be human in today’s society? The door has definitely been pried opened with subtle permissible changes such as nose jobs, ear tucks and gene therapies to prevent Down syndrome. However, will the next wave of change be prompted by human vanity, with celebrities taking the lead? Or will change be more democratized in nature, with each citizen (with the wallet to support that choice) empowered to explore his or her genetic journey?
TEST brought home its promised seven themes of gene editing with great vigor and gusto. By the end of the show, the audience had been catapulted from designer babies to life extension, without missing a (rock) beat. As Sophie, the bipolar protagonist, compels the people of Happyville to embrace their imperfection, we are moved by TEST’s epic grande finale moment. The organic, non-optimized Sophie forces the oh-so-perfect people of Happyville to accept their own imperfections to achieve true happiness.