“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present…”
The scene is from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. In Mnemonic, the play currently being presented by Quantum Theatre, Alice goes down a rather different kind of rabbit hole. The Alice in Mnemonic (played by Carolina Loyola-Garcia) is a grown woman living in modern-day England. Except that she’s not home, not just at present. She has vanished. Or so it seems to her boyfriend Virgil (Malcolm Tulip), who, in earlier scenes, can’t reach her despite many frantic cellphone calls.
And from there, the plots thicken while the mysteries multiply. Mnemomic—which was devised and first performed by the British theater company Complicite—is usually described as “a play about memory.” The title even says as much: a mnemonic is a memory-assist device, like a rhyme that helps you remember a pattern. But an equally apt title could’ve been had by borrowing a line from Pete Townshend’s song of the 1970s: “Whooo are you? Who-who, who-who?”
The play is a crazy quilt of interwoven scenes—some of them wacky, some of them startling and deeply moving—that shift back and forth in time and space. Various people are trying to track down various other people, or to figure out what those people have been up to and who they really are. And, in the process, our assorted heroes and anti-heroes begin finding clues to who they, themselves, really are.
Among the crowd after the opening-night show, I heard more than one audience member marveling at the intricate “layers of stories” revealed in Mnemonic. Actually, there are two main story lines comprising a series of sub-stories. Both unfold not in a fanciful Wonderland, but in a real-life land that poses infinitely more riddles—the land called Europe.
The Undead and the Iceman
In storyline number one, Alice is traveling across Europe searching for her father. Having once presumed him dead, she now suspects that he is out there somewhere—probably on the move, for reasons unknown. In the course of her quest she meets a collection of curious characters (played by various cast members who all take on multiple roles).
Some of these characters also are on the move, like the itinerant Greek cab driver who is working his way ever-so-slowly toward a brave new life that he hopes to build in California. Whether his resume will get him there is questionable, because along the way he’s been acquiring arcane skills of dubious value, such as the ability to repair Soviet-era Russian wristwatches that stop ticking. And, oh yes, there is a clue about Alice’s papa in that bizarre factoid …
Meanwhile, storyline number two starts ticking. This one has to do with Ötzi the Iceman. The Iceman is real. You’ve seen his gruesome, leathery face in photographs. He is the prehistoric man whose body was discovered, naturally mummified in ice, high on a ridge in the Alps. (In a region called the Ötztal Alps, to be precise, and thus the modern nickname given to him.)
After the Iceman was found, by chance, in 1991, scientists soon determined two things. First, that he had lived and died about 5,000 years ago. Second, that the well-preserved state of his corpse and the tools and clothing found with him offered an unprecedented chance to learn what early Europeans were like in the time before people wrote down their stories.
Mnemonic picks up on this true sequence of events and plays with it. The same actors who portray a cab driver, a hotel maid, or what-have-you in Alice’s story jump, from time to time, into suits and lab coats to become the archaeologists puzzling over Ötzi and his artifacts. They encounter puzzles aplenty—because the more they learn, the more there is to wonder about.
It seems the Iceman, too, was on the move when he died. What was he doing up there in a frigid mountain pass? What was he going after, or running from? Who was he, really? …
The Facts, the Art
In real life, scientists still don’t know “the truth” about the Iceman with any certainty. In Mnemonic, some actual facts that scientists have learned and speculated upon are mixed with speculative, made-up reenactment. And no, I am not going to tip off what Alice discovers about her father. Nor can I decide, as a reviewer, how to tell you whether you’re likely to “enjoy” the play. Maybe the following will help.
Do you enjoy life? Then you’ll probably enjoy this. More than any play I’ve seen in quite a while, Mnemonic takes on the entire bundle of sometimes-amusing and sometimes-maddening perplexities of human existence: Who are we and what makes us who we are? To what extent are we creatures of our parents, our ancestors, our culture—and hey, what’s that culture all about?
How does a Yiddish drinking song connect with a post-Neolithic copper axe head or a fussy French maid? And why is that guy that we meet at the start of the play named Virgil—in an obvious literary allusion to the trustworthy guide in Dante’s Inferno—when he can’t even locate his girlfriend or get her to return his phone calls?
In short, this is the kind of play Quantum loves to do. If you are a fan of the cutting edge, it’s probably a must-see, as Mnemonic is one of the most renowned works created thus far by the Complicite troupe and its artistic director, Simon McBurney.
This production of Mnemomic is directed by Karla Boos. It captures key elements of the kinetic Complicite style, which is built around creative movement and use of stage props by the actors, mixed with multimedia. There are some memorable effects. In the midst of one busy scene, Alice poses unmoving behind a frame, looking very much the Mona Lisa. In another scene, the ensemble uses a giant sheet of plastic to simulate the onset of a glacial ice flow. Then later, as the archaeologists explain the Iceman’s tattoos, we see the tattoos materializing on the naked back of an actor, via video projection.
One thing I think the production could’ve used more of: space. Quantum doesn’t have a regular home theater and has thrived by ingeniously adapting found spaces, but this one—a vacant, L-shaped space on the ground floor of East Liberty’s Kirkwood Building—seemed less than ideal. It’s tight and corner-y. I’d have loved seeing how some of the actors’ stage business and the larger video projections could have played out in a more expansive setting.
Plus, the Kirkwood space is “close” in another respect. On a hot night with a full house, it can get warm, despite pre-cooling by a huge mobile A/C unit that has to be shut off once the play starts. The solution to that is in your hands. If you dress cool and buy a cold drink at the concession stand, you’ll be OK.
You should also be OK with the fact that the play is very European. (Indeed, Europe itself is an underlying theme of Mnemonic—old Europe, new Europe, and even some touches of the version of Europe something-point-oh called the U.S.A.) A slight catch is that parts of some scenes are spoken or sung in languages other than English, without translation, but don’t worry. You don’t have to be a multilingual continental to get the drift.
Above all, if you are into roots and genealogy but your ancestors are not European, please don’t worry that you won’t be able to relate to such a Eurocentric play. Just as JFK in his famous visit to Berlin during the Cold War said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” I think you’re going to come out of Mnemonic saying: “Yep, that’s me; that’s us.”
Cast members not already named are: Ken Bolden, Patrick Jordan, Antonio Marziale, Anand Nagraj, and Katya Stepanov. They’re a cool gang, and the cool video is by Joe Seamans. Costumes are by Albulena Borovci, lighting by C. Todd Brown, sets by Tony Ferrieri, and sound by Joe Pino.
Mnemonic plays Wednesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m. in the Kirkwood Building, at 215 N. Highland Ave. in East Liberty and runs through July 28. Tickets: http://www.quantumtheatre.com/season/Mnemonic or 412-362-1713.
Mike Vargo, an experienced, longtime writer based in Pittsburgh, has himself performed on stage but “not very well,” he says. So he sticks to writing about it.
Photos courtesy of Quantum Theatre and Heather Mull.