So we know the what of history — Truman over Dewey, say, or U.S. and England over Germany, Italy and Japan in World War II — but do we know what history smells like? Knowing the past by facts is like knowing the Eroica Variations by musical notation. And so we struggle for more: to know what our ancestors loved, what they feared, how they ate, what they sought to achieve. What the sunrise looked like to them; how they felt when they came home; what filled their hearts with surprised joy. What made them laugh.
Mnemonic is the story of that struggle, on the micro and the macro level. On the macro level, mountaineers have found a body in the Italian Alps. No one has been reported missing since a music teacher who loved to climb (Jonathan David Martin) disappeared in 1941. The body is not his. Then whose? The answer is stranger than anyone ever imagined: it is the 5500-year-old body of an Ice Age man (Carlos Saldaña).
The micro story is just as compelling, and a little more personal: Alice (Teresa Spencer), having believed all her life that her father was dead, discovers at her mother’s funeral that he is — or was recently — quite alive. Armed with little more than his old watch and the vague information that he is, or was at one time, in Paris, she leaves a cryptic message to her American lover, Virge (Saldaña), and sets out to find him, or his remains.
If we would know our past, we would know a story of immigration. While Virge listens to a documentary on the great migrations across the European continent in the early days of human history, Alice, an Englishwoman, sets out across the continent to find her dad. She travels through Paris to Berlin to Poland to Lithuania and Poland again. From a BBC journalist with a Holmesian gift for deduction (Jon Reynolds) she learns that her father was a motorcyclist, a piano player and probably a Jew; a doctor in a Polish hospital (Vanita Kalra) identifies a woman (Elena Day) who might lead her to her father, who at last report lives in the same town as has possession of the frozen body of the Ice Age man.
Virge, an American, rides in a cab driven by a man who emigrated from Greece to Germany to England to America (Michael Burgos, whose absolutely astonishing The Eulogy was part of the 2015 Capital Fringe Festival) and who hopes to go to Australia before his life’s journey is through.
That’s the story. It’s the telling of the story that makes it remarkable. Mnemonic begins with a (somewhat overlong) lecture by Saldaña about the brain chemistry of memory: bottom line, memory is created when synapses expressing the memory are created, which often happens when there is a traumatic event. In the midst of this lecture (we are given blindfolds, and a leaf, to aid our own memories in the re-creation of events), he takes a phone call, and, in so doing, catapults into the telling.
Thereafter, the two stories proceed on parallel tracks. The Ice Man provokes the principal scientist (Martin) to speculate about his history and the peril he faced in his final days; parsing the slender evidence, he deduces the Ice Man’s age, his position in society, the trauma of his final moments. Alice learns similar things about her father as she meets the occasional friend or cousin.
So is this a play about memory, or about our compelling need to know our past? Decidedly the latter, I think; the story’s mysteries yields to inquiry slowly, and we share the character’s need to suss them out. This sense is heightened by extended passages in French, German, Greek, Polish and Italian; we guess at what’s going on from gestures, facial expressions and other visible cues, just as Alice tries to know her father through the small bits of information she receives from those who knew him. (On the other hand, Complicite, a European touring company based in London, devised the play; Europeans are much more likely to speak several languages than are Americans, and so the effect may be unintended).
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closes April 9, 2017
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Mnemonic is a stew of styles; there is a great deal of lecturing, particularly about the Ice Man (the play makes no effort to recreate his life dramatically, except for his few final steps). This is occasionally a little trying. One scene in which a gaggle of scholars struggles to cope with the breakdown of a universal translator while presenting their findings about the Ice Man goes on a little long, and is short of laughs. The actual Ice Man findings are provocative, and important to the story, but the play has not solved the dilemma of how to present them at a pace which measures up to the rest of the story.
That story ranges across a continent, but the Anacostia Playhouse stage is considerably smaller than that. Thus the actors are in constant motion across Tony Cisek’s spare and precise set; chairs, beds, and tables appear and are taken away swiftly and without fuss; a mirror becomes a window; two chairs become a taxi; the stone upon which the Ice Man finally rests his head becomes the tombstone for the Greek cabbie’s father. The cast is never more graceful than when their movements are freighted with emotional meaning; we understand what the dalliance between Alice and the BBC man was like because they can never get into bed without Virge coming between them; and a wonderful dance at the end helps us realize that the Ice Man, for all his primitive circumstances, was no different than we are.
Graceful, intelligent, occasionally moving and occasionally brilliant, Mnemonic gives us a chance to recognize that we are all children of the same Earth, borne of the same fears and of the same restless desire to move and know. The cast, drawn principally from local actors, embraces the story with the same seamless knowingness that one might expect from the actors who originally devised the play.
Mnemonic, originally conceived and directed by Simon McBurney and devised by Complicite, directed by Colin Hovde, assisted by Nora Ives, movement director Dody DiSanto, featuring Carlos Saldaña, Teresa Spencer, Michael Burgos, Elena Day, Vanita Kalra, Jonathan David Martin, and Jon Reynolds . Scenic designer Tony Cisek, assisted by Audrey Burek . Sound designer Matthew M. Nielson . Lighting designer William K. D’Eugenio . Projection designer Patrick W. Lord, assisted by Julia Beu and Amanda Garnage . Costume designer Daniell Preston, assisted by Kateri Kohn . Stage Manager: Dan Deiter . Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.