In the disarming little nugget of philosophical standup that begins the new Theatre de Complicite show “Mnemonic,” the troupe’s leader and the show’s director, Simon McBurney, gives the audience a brief lecture on its major themes — memory and origins — replete with interactive aids: a blindfold and a leaf that we are encouraged to fondle, when blindfolded, as he compares the web of veins on its underside to our own family trees.
As we envision a long trail of our ancestors winding back through history, McBurney concludes his lecture with the startling suggestion that if we traced our genealogy back a thousand years, everyone sitting in the theater would be inter-related. Oh, dear. So the couple fidgeting distractingly in the row behind me are distant relatives? The woman loudly assessing the Oscar fashions of the night before (“I didn’t care for Julia Roberts’ gown, so sue me”) while sporting a truly indefensible shade of lipstick, a cousin in disguise? This may well rank as the most unsettling moment of the theater season so far.
There are more shocks in store in “Mnemonic,” but they are thankfully of a more happy kind, though no less thought-provoking. The sheer theatrical ingenuity on display might top the list; as the Broadway season gears up for the last laps before the Tony cutoff, Theatre de Complicite offers a bracing reminder that the usual requirements for popular stage entertainment — lavish sets and costumes, tidy stories, well-defined characters, coherent maps of meaning — aren’t the only way to get an audience’s juices flowing. The theme of the show keeps curving around toward an awe at the chaotic beauty of the history that binds us together, and the production itself inspires a similar amazement at the aesthetic potential of a well-orchestrated mess.
Of traditional plot there isn’t much: One storyline follows the emotional disconnection between a British man named Virgil (McBurney) and his girlfriend Alice (Katrin Cartlidge), who disappeared suddenly after her mother’s funeral some months ago. We eventually learn she’s been on a quest to find out who her father was: Her mother never told her he was still alive, but Alice has discovered a Russian watch that may hold the clue to his identity.
Her odyssey, which takes her on a reckless trek through Europe, is depicted in fragmented scenes and disconnected cell phone calls that are intercut with a sort of docudrama about the discovery in the Alps of a 5,000-year-old corpse that has been perfectly preserved in ice. Politicians, scientists and reporters spar over who he was, where he was going and how he died.
The show’s seven versatile and uniformly gifted performers switch back and forth between stories with breathtaking speed and fluidity; “devised” by the actors and choreographed with clockwork grace, the production eloquently echoes the formlessness and randomness of memory, as one scene dovetails surreally into the next, and fragments of related narratives cling to the fringes of the basic storylines.
Although there is some effective use of video cameras and monitors, the show is primarily low-tech. Designer Michael Levine relies mostly on simple pieces of furniture and the actors themselves to set the scenes. A pair of long plastic screens that look like shower curtains divide the stage at times, allowing certain moments to play out before or behind a hazy backdrop suffused with an eerie light supplied by Paul Anderson, whose contributions enhance the show’s hallucinatory effects. So, too, does the brilliant, sometimes eerie sound design of Christopher Shutt.
The actors give perfectly observed performances as the polyglot collection of humanity whose paths cross Alice’s and the iceman’s. But when they are not in character, they often move in slow, stylized ways that are subtly entrancing, reminding us that encoded in our minds somewhere is a primal appreciation for graceful movement in and of itself. Even the show’s nonhuman cast member — a chair — gives a lovely performance when it is called on to represent the wizened corpse of the iceman, elsewhere impersonated by McBurney. Toward the close, the cast manipulates the chair’s moveable arms and legs in a strangely poignant dramatic re-creation of the iceman’s last minutes, as he drops to the ground, weary with climbing, and surrenders to the elements.
In keeping with its thesis that human history is as unpredictable as the weather, “Mnemonic” does not wrap things up neatly. One of the last segments is a funny re-creation of an academic seminar at which a multinational assortment of scientists offers divergent ideas on the iceman and his history, each settling on a different hypothesis for his doom. All they can agree on is that he was heading somewhere, a migrant beginning a trek from somewhere to somewhere else that will be multiplied and repeated by humanity throughout the ages.
The sum of those journeys is the current, chaotic shape of the world, in which unreliable cell phones can connect us to Timbuktu but not always the friend down the street, and your average London cab driver hails from Greece but is on his way to Melbourne.
In the end, Alice never finds her own father, but she hooks up with a more distant relative, the iceman. The play’s mesmerizing last image depicts spectators peering through an observation window at the frozen, naked corpse. One by one they duck under the window and take the place of the iceman, as a voice intones, “Seeing a naked body of any age, we remember our own, putting ourselves in someone else’s place.” Somewhere in the web of our minds is the forgotten knowledge that every person’s journey is essentially our own; “Mnemonic” acts like a drug to release this atavistic, strangely inspiring idea.