An evocative and arresting sight hangs suspended at the entrance to Egg. Sarah Bebe Holmes lies coiled inside a clear plastic bag of water, eyes closed, delicately moving her fists like a fetus in the womb. An unseen narrator describes the development of eggs within the nine-week-old fetus. Even before birth, a female fetus holds up to 7 million eggs, which falls to 1 to 2 million before birth, the narrator told the audience. At which point, Holmes pierces the bag, releasing a stream of amniotic water.
Egg is a play by the aerial performing arts and story-telling company Paper Doll Militia. Holmes, who takes most of the centre stage, represents a woman trying to conceive, Emma, as well as her potential egg donor, Sarah. Set in the USA, Egg is an autobiographical performance – the monologues wry and frank, the acrobatics physically powerful.
Holmes switches through roles marked by different pairs of shoes and a few clear plastic props that leave her unshielded from scrutiny. First, she is Emma, the woman trying to conceive. 'We spend so much of our lives trying not to get knocked up, it's a surprise when we find we can't,' she says. Emma has finally found her ideal partner later in life, and wants a family. She wants to create the kind of home life that she never had herself. But while she had conceived before with her own eggs, the pregnancies did not continue. So now she asks her partner about their younger friend, Sarah. She wants to use Sarah's eggs.
Emma's partner is not much involved in the story, appearing only briefly. However, he appears to be a man who truly desires to give his partner what she wants. He also doubles as the double bass player. Along with the bass, electronic sound effects and the occasional light show, projected onto a screen or onto the instrument itself, support the performance.
The show's focus is on how egg donation affects the two women involved. 'This is the closest a woman gets to being a father,' Sarah says of egg donation, raising a ripple of laughter from the audience.
Holmes delivers Emma and Sarah's conversation about egg donation while simultaneously climbing, contorting and twirling slowly on long plastic aerial tubes. There's obviously a visual metaphor here. Sarah says her decision to willingly donate her eggs is not only a logical one – the logic is clear, she should do it, as her friend requires donor eggs and she has them to spare. More importantly, it is an emotional one – she wants to help her friend. Does she want to know what the process involves? No, she says. Let's leave that for later.
Donning a clear plastic medical coat and putting herself in another character's shoes, Holmes presents her third character, a perky-voiced medical professional. This character rattles off a dizzying rush of criteria and procedural requirements for egg donors in the USA. Risk factors for an array of communicable diseases. Ethnicity, life choices, education, hobbies, psychometric testing.
There are questions, lots of them, and later Sarah rails angrily against these intrusive personal queries. Why do they need to know whether she has a family history of alcoholism or depression? Whether she has ever taken drugs? Isn't the most important thing that she is healthy now? Her emotional willingness to be an egg donor seems to hold no weight in the screening criteria. And in fact, under the Food and Drug Administration's criteria, she is deemed unsuitable as an anonymous egg donor.
However, Sarah is still able to donate because of her personal connection to her friends. Holmes now portrays Sarah under the stress of hormone treatments, wrapping herself up in a thick streamer of plastic and contorting herself upwards and downwards through space, frustrated, pained, ovaries swollen, vocally upset. Egg donation is represented as a sinister process, with an anaesthetised Sarah contorting silently through the air, turning, suspended by each limb.
I was expecting the next scene after egg donation to be a happy ending. The build up to egg donation, the procedure, the physical contortions up almost to the ceiling and back to the floor – surely, after so much toil there has to be a cathartic ending? Surely, this egg donation must lead to successful conception, pregnancy and birth? But – no spoilers here. This aspect of the play drives home the fact that infertility can be mysterious, complicated, and may have many causes.
Watching the characters' journeys, I realised I had never really considered how closely people's lives are scrutinised during fertility treatments. The play showed egg donation as more than an invasive medical procedure – it is also an uncomfortable invasion of the donor's personal privacy. Suffice to say that Egg is a small but powerful play, which brings to light the varied frustrations that can arise from fertility treatment. Yet despite these struggles, the characters all agree, it is worth it.