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Mnemonic begins with a blindfold and a leaf—you’re handed these as you first enter Theater Alliance’s small stage at the Anacostia Playhouse. In an introduction that slowly transforms from a real life “turn off your cellphones” speech into a dreamy monologue within the world of the play, the leaf is revealed to be much, much more than a bit of a tree. The leaf—a single stem branching off into a thousand different veins—is a roadmap to the sprawling and beautiful Mnemonic, as well as a device to tie your own memories to the ones explored in the play. The blindfold is just a blindfold, not, as the opening monologue reassures the audience, a sign that any sort of avant-garde audience participation shenanigans are forthcoming. Mnemonic is breathtakingly modern and adventurous in its experimentation with form and motion, but it should not be mistaken as alien or metatheatrical or, in the words of the opening monologue, involving lots of naked bodies and baby oil.
While Mnemonic is boldly experimental in form, its plot is meticulously grounded and relatable. Devised by the British theater company Complicite in 1999, Mnemonic uses a simple plot—a man, who has a specific fascination with a recently unearthed ice mummy, learns where his long-missing girlfriend has been for the last several months—to explore dozens of different and complementary aspects of memory and belonging.
That’s not to say that Theater Alliance has picked an easy crowd-pleaser. Complicite has built all sorts of potential pitfalls into their play, and it’s a testament to Colin Hovde’s tight directing that the play appears to have been brought to life effortlessly—an illusion that certainly hides a very demanding creation process. One particular stroke of brilliance: The play has been partially adapted to take place in present-day D.C., a decision that serves as a further invitation for the audience’s own memories to mingle with the ones explored on stage, and the play’s exploration of human origins and the experience of living in a melting pot perfectly tie into the current political landscape.
Solid acting also grounds the production and ensures the show never gets too far lost into the world of memory. This is especially true of Carlos Saldaña, who is called to shepherd the audience into the world of the play and carry the first act as Virgil (the man with the missing girlfriend and an intense interest in an ice mummy) with remarkable vulnerability—quite literally, as he spends most of the first third of the play nude. The supporting cast, meanwhile, are called to represent all of Europe, playing dozens of characters with just as many accents and foreign languages, for wayward Alice (Teresa Spencer) to encounter as she searches the continent for a trace of her father.
Mnemonic is a play not quite like anything else out there and already deserves to be viewed as a modern classic. It’s telling that, although the play lasts two hours without an intermission (do remember to avoid downing a lot of water before the show), the time utterly flies by. Theater Alliance has more than risen to the challenge posed by Complicite and produced what will likely be remembered as one of the best D.C.-area plays of the year.
2020 Shannon Pl. SE. $30-$40. (202) 241-2539. theateralliance.com.