A CurtainUp Review
Mnemonic by Elyse Sommer
1. assisting or intending to assist the memory; 2 of memory
|We live in a time where stories surround us. Multiple stories. Constantly. Fragmented by television, radio, print, the internet, calling to us from every hoarding and passing by us by our every street corner. We no longer live in a world of the single tale. So the shards of stories we have put together, some longer some shorter, collide here in the theatre, reflecting, repeating, and evolving like the act of memory itself
-- Simon McBurney, introductory program note entitled "Collisions".
Simon McBurney and Katrin Cartlidge (photo: (Alastair Muir)
I've got the black sleep mask and shiny leaf that were taped to my seat at the John Jay auditorium next to my computer. I will tape that leaf inside my program when I'm finished writing this review of the internationally acclaimed Theatre de Complicite's latest high concept play, Mnemonic -- a keepsake of a theatrical experience that requires no mnemonic device to stick in the mind.
If anyone else used the mask and leaf device as a means to make you an active participant in the events to follow, it would be a gimmick. Simon McBurney, who does just that in his combination standup comic-seminar speaker introduction to the show himself jokingly anticipates your "oh, no, audience participation" when he persuades you to actually put on the mask in order to make the connection between the veins in that leaf and the lines of our ancestry. But with McBurney and company all objects are more than what first meets the eye (just keep your eye on that chair on which McBurney sits when he first comes on stage!), just as the seven member cast evolves into a whole world of humanity.
While you could just sit back and enjoy Mnemonic as a visual feast of movement, light and sound that's not to say that its difficult to follow the simultaneous and imaginatively interconnected stories. Story one follows Alice (a finely honed performance by Katrin Cartlidge) a contemporary woman who has mysteriously left her boyfriend Virgil (Simon McBurney) and ended up on an Eastern European quest for her never seen father. Story two is an imaginary take-off on the actual 1991 discovery of a man's frozen body in the Northern Italian Alps. The body was first thought to be that of a long missing mountaineer but was in fact that of a 5000-plus-year-old man.
These seemingly disparate stories of past and present are artfully connected by the remarkably chameleonic ensemble, its seven members (including McBurney) smoothly gliding and sliding through their varied roles. Tim Mcmullan is particularly affecting Konrad Spindler, the archaeologist and author of the book The Man in the Ice, which serves as the narrative hook for the Iceman mystery.
While the fragmented stories of Menomic's many characters have an eerie, otherworldly quality, there are also some side-splittingly funny moments, as when the ensemble as a group of scientists posit their theories on the mysterious Iceman's final journey.
McBurney spends a good deal of his time on stage without a stitch of clothing. But, unlike so many plays in which nudity is like a song in a musical that does nothing to really move the story forward, the nudity here is integral to the themes explored.
No less remarkable than the performances is the dazzling stagecraft: Michael Levine's set design evokes every shift in the play's ever changing landscape. Paul Anderson's lighting is nothing short of brilliant, especially when he accompanies a telephone conversation between Virgil and Alice with her image projected onto his bare chest.
Christopher Shutt's sound effects further enhance the overall originality and effectiveness.
Intriguing and memorable as Mnemonic is, two hours without intermission (actually, the performance I attended ran longer than that) seems a bit too much of a better than good thing. As in a ballet where the dancers often group and re-group at least once or twice too often, the truly thrilling climax would be even more so if it came about fifteen minutes sooner, which could be accomplished by speeding up some of the slow motion movements or cutting some of the repetitions (or a little of both). This is a minor complaint in the context of the overall which is as visually ad metally stimulating an evening of theater as you're likely to find in New York -- probably until the Theatre de Complicite returns with its next work.
Until then I'll take out my green leaf occasionally to conjure up the memory of another prop-- the simple wooden chair that is so touchingly transformed during the unforgettable Ice Man finale.
Another Theatre de Compicite play reviewed at CurtainUp:
Street of Crocodiles
Conceived and directed by Simon McBurney
Cast: Katrin Cartlidge, Simon McBurney, Tim McMullan, Eric Mallett, Kostas Philippoglou, Catherine Schaub Abkarian, Daniel Wahl
Set Design: Michael Levine
Lighting Design: Paul Anderson
Sound Design: Christopher Shuff
Running Time: 2 hours, no intermission
John Jay College Theater, 899 10th Av. (58/59 Sts) 239-6200
3/22/01-5/24/01; opening 3/28/01.
Tues-Sat. 8pm, Sundays 7pm, Sat and Sundays at 2pm -- $55
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
based on 4/03 performance