I remember the first time I heard about the play Mnemonic. I was teaching at the University of Notre Dame, and a graduate student in one of my classes (I think it was Renée D’Aoust [who just recently sent me a copy of her lovely memoir about dance, Body of a Dancer], but I could be misremembering) had seen Complicité’s original production of Mnemonic and described it to me as one of those arts-life-altering, magical, unforgettable, amazing theater experiences that reaffirms one’s belief in the power and importance of art to human experience and understanding. If I remember correctly (and I probably don’t), she wrote a paper about it; if that memory is correct (a big “if”), there’s a likelihood that I have a copy of that paper in my filing cabinet or even on a hard drive, or – given that this was back in the early “aughts” – on a floppy disk. I might, in other words, be able to retrieve hard evidence that would prompt a more accurate memory of that conversation with … was it Renée? Or was it someone else?
The workings of memory – its unreliability, its role in storytelling and history, its importance to our sense of kinship, belonging, and identity – and the investigative resources we must bring to bear on memory in order to confirm, affirm, verify, debunk, correct, and finally write and (re)write its content: all this, and more, is this subject of Mnemonic, a play originally written by (and featuring) the actor/director/writer Simon McBurney of Theatre Complicité. The play opens with a monologue by a man, originally McBurney, here in Pittsburgh played by Malcolm Tulip, riffing on the connections between memory and emotion, memory and ancestry, the science of memory and what we know about how information is stored in and retrieved from the brain (very little, in fact), and on the ways in which we use cues and symbols – “mnemonics” – to help us remember what we do remember. He then asks us to put on a sleeping mask and pick up a leaf — both of which were preset on our seats — and instructs us to retrieve a series of memories, which we will do as successfully or unsuccessfully as our own abilities allow. We trace the veins of the leaf with our fingers as he describes it as a metaphor for the interconnections between ourselves and the rest of humanity. When we are finally told to remove the mask, the man has changed: he’s no longer an actor speaking to an audience, but a character in a story searching for his girlfriend, Alice, who in turn is searching for her father. Interwoven with their story is that of the discovery in 1991 of the body of a man who had perished over 5,000 years ago, “Ötzi the Iceman,” whose extraordinarily well-preserved remains provided scientists with tantalizing evidence and insights about humans living in the Neolithic age.
What links the two main stories together is that in both cases, the (re)searcher must piece together a life story from fragmentary clues. The objects found with the Iceman, along with the physical state of his body, allow forensic scientists to figure out not only when he lived and died but also to deduce his age at time of death, his skill level as a mountaineer, his medical condition, and a handful of other facts, but the answer to their most essential question – “Why was he on the mountain alone?” – remains a mystery, and can only be answered through speculation. Likewise, even though Alice finally finds her father after a long trek across most of Europe, she is still unable to fully read the book that was his life. The compulsion to understand these two men’s lives, the play suggests, links back to a deep desire to know and remember our ancestors – after all, as the play points out, mathematically speaking you only need to go back 40 generations to get to a point where the number of your ancestors exceeds the planet’s population at the time, meaning that we are all related at some level to everyone else currently living. To know the Iceman, or Alice’s father, is in some way to know and remember ourselves and to begin to compass our essential interconnectedness with others across both space and time. This, for me, was the primary intellectual take-home of Mnemonic. There was also a good deal more to chew on, but (ironically? predictably?) the time that has passed since I saw the production has made retrieval of the intellectual and psychological connections it prompted harder and harder to recall. This may be because the play is structured like memory, that is, as a series of inexact repetitions, continually looping back to previous territory that never looks precisely as it did before. In his monologue, the man has already told us that this is how memory works: it’s not like a computer file you retrieve, but rather like a story you write – and write differently – every time you seek to recapture it. In the play, the same images, phrases, and moments repeat, but each time a little differently, so that by the end of the play they begin to feel like memories: that is, it begins to feel as if you, as an audience member, are “remembering” the play rather than seeing it for the first time. More than anything, then, Mnemonic drives home just how precarious and unreliable memories – and the stories and histories that cement them in our culture and psyche – can be.
As intellectually stimulating as Quantum’s production of Mnemonic is, I wanted to be more captivated and moved by its storytelling. The cast turns in solid performances, but the performance venue poses a number of unfortunate obstacles to their ability to form an emotional connection with the audience. To begin with, the unoccupied office in the Kirkwood Building is both mundane and awkward, resisting the kind of magical transformation into many spaces, times, and places that the play demands. A pillar downstage center blocks sightlines for many in the audience, particularly of one of the signature features of the set, a large, 1,000+ lb stone that stands as a central metaphorical image for many of the scenes (the Iceman is, after all, a relic of the stone age, and it serves to remind us of the scale and scope of geologic time). And finally, the lack of air conditioning in the space creates a sultry atmosphere for a play that has many clearly comic moments; the adage “cold for comedy” occurred to me repeatedly as I recognized moments that should have provoked laughter but fizzled out in the limpid heat.