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Simon McBurney and Katrin Cartlidge
in Mnemonic
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
"We need stories," Virgil explains long distance to his girlfriend, Alice, in Mnemonic. The truth is, we probably do, or why else would we spend so much time compulsively constructing them? But even if we didn't, the riveting, intertwined stories told in intelligent word and graphic image by the seven-member Theatre de Complicite troupe in this mesmerizing piece would seem absolutely necessary.

How engaging is the work, which was conceived and directed by the brilliant and increasingly indispensable Simon McBurney and devised by his canny company? Here's how much: During the intermissionless two-hour performance I attended, there wasn't one cough from the audience. This may not sound like much of a recommendation, but I defy anyone to point at another play in Manhattan at the moment where such a phenomenon is occurring.

Explaining why an audience of New York theatergoers can be so enthralled when far more often they are either bored or preoccupied with demanding bladders is a challenge, especially since Mnemonic is willfully non-linear. A piece that grew out of McBurney's desire to grapple with memory as a subject, it has been shaped into a literate crossword puzzle of themes that include communication, relationships, scientific speculation, genealogy, anomie, linguistics, evolution, and storytelling itself. Sounds dry? It's anything but. Sounds confusing? It isn't--although it may be in synopsis, as much that happens in the woven narratives makes perfect sense while unfolding in an auditorium but may seem less lucid on the printed page.

Still: McBurney himself begins Mnemonic with seemingly improvised lines about memory that quickly escalate into a Robin Williams-like stand-up routine. Pacing the stage in a loose suit and dark shirt, he makes some observations and cracks some jokes and notes that the chair he's just sat on belonged to his father and grandfather. The chair is a mnemonic for him, he declares--that is, when he sees it, he immediately thinks of his forebears. Having mentioned that, he instructs audience members to open small plastic packets that have been taped to the left armrests of their seat. Each of these packets contains a leaf and black sleep mask, the leaf for imagining that its veins represent family tree lines and the mask for wearing while trying to summon up specific past events and times called out by McBurney.

After four or five minutes have passed, McBurney says it's time to take the masks off, and we see him sitting on his chair again but wearing different, downscale clothes. His cell phone rings and he begins to tell a chum apparently called Alistair about a woman called Alice. Alice, it turns out, is his girlfriend. She's left him, Virgil, to start a journey across Europe during which she hopes to find information about her lost father.

And just like that the first of the Mnemonic stories begins and continues intermittently, as Alice follows leads that take her to various cities which her father may have passed through. Along the bumpy way she loses her wallet, meets gregarious cab drivers and nosy hotel maids and inquisitive tourists, but makes little headway. Throughout the frustrating search, she keeps in touch with Virgil, filling him in on her progress or lack of progress--that is, when the phone lines aren't "breaking up," which they constantly do and thereby suggest the symbolic break-up of communication between her and Virgil.

As the separated lovers pursue their stories--he attempting to get hers, she attempting to learn her father's--another story that at first seems totally unrelated to them gets underway. The remains of a Neolithic man are found in an Eastern European city and a group of scientists set about trying to piece together everything they can about his long-ago life. They take their clues from the position in which he was found, the food discovered in him, the few possessions discovered on him, etc. If only to confirm their own importance, they very much need to provide this ancient fellow with a story--or as it happens, conflicting stories, since each of them proposes a different theory about who the Ice Man was and how he lived.

But those are only the bare bones, as it were. What is equally significant in the Mnemonic tales has as much to do with the telling as with what is told. You could call it a collage of theatrical tones. McBurney and colleagues--abetted by music, static, electronic stings, a rolling bed, an opaque plastic curtain, and a mirror that sometimes is transparent--indulge in constant shape-shifting. On a split-second's notice they go from being supporting players in Alice's story to running the Ice Man investigation. They speak in any number of tongues; the funniest showcase for their accents, an out-and-out comedy sketch, is a press conference that spoofs the grandiosity often associated with science. The cast remains amusing until, in a finger snap, the contentious ladies and gentlemen of international science change position and become corpses unearthed in a destroyed Ice Age village.

Simon McBurney in Mnemonic
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
While Theatre de Complicité's multi-skilled actors Katrin Cartlidge, Tim McMillan, Eric Mallett, Kostas Philippoglou, Catherine Schaub Abkarian, and Daniel Wahl leap in and out of costume accessories and personae, McBurney--in various states of dress and undress, and looking buff at all times--is either Virgil, sitting on his bed and hoping to make some sense of Alice's wild goose chase, or he's lying on the floor or on a slab as the Ice Man. When he isn't acting the Ice Man, the hinged chair from the opening sequence stands in. Astonishingly, it figures in a morphing moment that ranks with the all-time great stage illusions: As the cast manipulates the chair, its unhinged arms, legs, and seat become the Ice Man heading into the mountain range and slowly dying in a snowstorm. That an inanimate object could be handled by six actors in such a way that an entire audience is moved to palpable silence would seem unlikely, but it happens unforgettably towards the end of Mnemonic.

That's when the various strands of the stories tie together and the point is made that all people are ultimately linked. (Incidentally, this reiterates the message delivered by Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.) Just how this is depicted in Mnemonic deserves to be saved for the viewing of the show; it's sufficient to report that Virgil, a contemporary Everyman whose history will most probably get lost in the obliterating mists of time, comes to seem the Ice Man's direct descendant. The connection between them and, actually, the evolution of humankind is conveyed via the last of Mnemonic's stunning visual metaphors.

Please note that McBurney and his superb acting team could not have achieved their simultaneously disturbing and reassuring results here without the help of set designer Michael Levine, lighting designer Paul Anderson, sound designer Christopher Shutt and costume designer Christina Cunningham. As the title implicitly promises, Mnemonic is a theatrical event to remember. It's a mnemonic for excellence.

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