Forget America’s claim. In Theatre de Complicite’s “Mnemonic,” it’s the united states of Europe that’s the great melting pot. The adventurous company’s newest work, which premiered at the Salzburg Festival, journeys simultaneously backward and forward in time and across national boundaries to puzzle through the origins of ancestry. The mystery tale follows two strands: A young woman’s travels to find her lost father and her lover’s fascination with the unfolding story of Oetzi, the 4,000-year-old corpse found frozen on the Austrian-Italian border of the Alps. “Mnemonic” is mesmerizing, thought-provoking and colored with rich performances.
Complicite founder and director Simon McBurney opens the performance so casually, you aren’t even aware that he’s taken you from a humorously rendered reminder to switch off that mobile phone (along with a discourse on memory and connections) into the heart of the play. He does it with the help of a simple leaf whose spreading veins are a reminder of the family tree that springs from each member of the audience — leading us to the startlingly simple conclusion that each person in the audience is ultimately related to every other person there. With that, the world suddenly shrinks to the size of a village, and we enter the play’s story.
Virgil (McBurney) obsesses over the disappearance of British girlfriend Alice (played with nail-biting edge by Katrin Cartlidge, best known for her Mike Leigh films), who is stunned to learn the identity of her foreigner father only at her mother’s funeral. Told she resembles him, Alice goes through her looking glass on a zigzagging trek into Eastern Europe to meet him.
Meanwhile, Virgil is off on a telectronic odyssey of his own, following a trail to uncover the identity of Oetzi. But whereas Alice is in constant contact with a shifting stream of strangers, from skilled pickpockets to her new-found family, Virgil conducts his search from the solitary cocoon of his room, where he often sits naked, his only contact with the world via telephone or television.
The script reveals the identities of Alice’s father and the Alpine iceman through a careful layering of clues. A box of the father’s possessions is dissected as thoroughly as the artifacts found near Oetzi’s body. The play’s subtle inconclusions are paradoxically satisfying.
The rest of the excellent and versatile cast conjure up a multilingual population: from the Austrian mountaineering team that recovers Oetzi, to the international team of experts who deduce a completely incompatible range of scenarios explaining Oetzi’s personal history (a searingly hilarious take on tunnel-vision specialists), to the British-German-Greek immigrant who might be a modern equivalent of the mountain-crossing Oetzi.
McBurney and eventually the entire cast take on the identity of the frozen man, who in Complicite’s vision is a member of each one’s family tree. It’s a compelling tale for the era of the global village.