By Joseph Hurley
MNEMONIC, Theatre de Complicite, by Simon McBurney. At John Jay College Theater, 58th Street and Tenth Avenue, NYC. Through May 24.
The term "experimental theater" has become something of an all-purpose label, mindlessly slapped onto any even tangentially offbeat or hard-to-classify venture.
What the expression really means, or should, is exemplified by "Mnemonic," the current production by the London-based Theatre de Complicite on view at the John Jay College Theater.
Founded in 1983 by Simon McBurney, the son of an Irish-American arch’ologist and an Irish-Welsh mother, the Complicite troupe is in the midst of its fifth visit to New York stages.
"Mnemonic" is arguably the company’s most ambitious and possibly, in terms of overall impact, its most successful endeavor.
That title, "Mnemonic," stems from the Greek word meaning "mindful," and is defined in Webster’s seventh new Collegiate Dictionary first as "assisting or intended to assist memory."
"Mnemonic" opens with what appears to be a casual, improvised, even somewhat offhand 20 minutes, with McBurney alone on stage"explaining" his intentions and introducing the two-hour, intermissionless production in what is actually a meticulously scripted and brilliantly rendered solo pitched somewhere between standup comedy and the confessional.
Moving gracefully around the John Jay stage, the adroit, compact McBurney confides that when someone asked him why he was doing a show about memory, he found himself "trying to remember . . . the origin of this show, which is as much about origins as it is about memory."
For all that such a description may come across as elusive, or that McBurney himself may even sound slightly and vaguely evasive, those simple words function as a fitting introduction to what he and his six colleagues have put together.
"Mneumonic" is very much a collaborative venture, conveying the feeling of a shared energy driving toward and reaching a common objective. Flowing across the stage in a manner suggesting near liquidity, Complicite’s new show is visual in the extreme, approaching the cinematic, in the manner in which it utilizes the live theater’s equivalent of the screen’s cuts, fades, dissolves and, above all, complicated montages that almost appear to be being edited as the audience watches.
Three narrative themes share space and time in "Mnemonic," a man’s isolation and loneliness at the end of a love affair, a woman’s effort to solve the mystery of her parenthood, and, most compellingly, and certainly most striking in its visual dimension, the true story of the discovery of the remains of a human being, found in 1991 by a party of tourists descending from a mountain peak. The body, encased in Alpine ice, was at first assumed to be the corpse of a missing Italian guide, but, upon scientific investigation, found to be perhaps 5,000 years old.
McBurney’s early role as presenter makes way for his performance as Virgil, the abandoned lover wracked by insomnia, while Katrin Cartlidge, remembered for brilliant work in such Mike Leigh films as the searing "Naked," and the little-seen "Career Girls," is the vanished Alice, and, at other moments, a member of the ensemble, along with Eric Mallett, Kostas Philippoglou, Catherine Schaub Abkarian, Daniel Wahl, and Tim McMullan, all of them excellent.
"Mnemonic," difficult as it is to describe in mere words, is a singularly rewarding theatrical experience and not to be missed during its all-too-brief residence.