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Theater Review

The Past as a Work in Progress in Atmospheric 'Mnemonic'


NEW YORK — Thea^tre de Complicite, the London ensemble with the French name, stands high on the list of major international companies overdue--badly--for a Los Angeles engagement. Artistic director Simon McBurney's troupe is scheduled to redress that wrong this fall when UCLA hosts "The Noise of Time," a piece inspired by the life and music of Dmitri Shostakovich.

I can't vouch for that creation. I can, however, vouch for the crafty, frequently wonderful and wonder-filled "Mnemonic," continuing through May at the midtown John Jay College Theater.

It is radically different from Complicite's earlier "Street of Crocodiles." That project, which toured to a handful of American cities, was many things, including the most indelible piece of Holocaust-themed art I've ever experienced, in any medium. And the Holocaust wasn't even its primary focus. In it, McBurney and company delved into the work and fantastic imagery of Polish writer Bruno Schulz. Remembering and honoring Schulz, who died at the hands of the Nazis, "Crocodiles" became an ode to the very act of memory--a flame against history's darker forces.

"Mnemonic" exists in a looser, more indulgent universe than "Crocodiles." Yet clearly this memory business is dear to the restless imaginations of McBurney and company.

It begins as a theater lecture, delivered by director McBurney. His (too-) lengthy rap includes an entreaty to the audience to think about their ancestors, about the "frequently useless objects" we utilize to mark a time or place. Then, a strange turn of events: A cell phone rings. McBurney takes the call, and--transforming himself subliminally into a character called Virgil--he tells his friend he's caught him in the middle of a performance of "Mnemonic." We've been tricked; McBurney has been lip-syncing to his own prerecorded voice all along.

From this artful dodge, the play splits into two tracks. Virgil's ex-lover Alice (Katrin Cartlidge) has left Virgil in the lurch, grasping at straws of their relationship. Alice darts across Europe toward Lithuania, searching for her father. Her only token of the dad she never knew: a Soviet-made wristwatch.

Virgil meantime becomes obsessed with the recent discovery of an "iceman," found frozen in an Alpine glacier. A gaggle of international scientists speculates on who this 5,000-year-old character was, the circumstances of his life, the final hours before death.

It sounds like two hours of disconnective tissue, and there are times in "Mnemonic" when the strands don't so much intersect as dangle in something approximating proximity. But the text itself only hints at the production's spellbinding atmospheric ruminations. McBurney works with his fellow actors and a crack design team to create an ever-shifting world--a European union full of isolated souls, zipping from past to present, from one country to the next, linked by the latest technology that nonetheless has a way of failing. ("You're beginning to break up," Alice tells Virgil via cell phone, late in the game.) By contrast the climactic depiction of the iceman's death--achieved by the manipulation of a folding-chair-turned-puppet--is sheer low-tech magic.

At one point Virgil recalls Alice, his feverish sleep-deprived imaginings confronting him with a repeated loop of action, in which Alice and a new lover tumble in and out of bed, over and over. Such moments are handled so well, and carefully, they both embody and transcend McBurney's premise. We are our memories. But they're more, and less, than recalling what was. They're acts of revision and of private investigation, guided by a souvenir or two.

* "Mnemonic," Thea^tre de Complicite at the John Jay College Theater, 899 10th Ave., New York City. $55. Through May 24. (212) 239-6200.

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