Preview: Quantum infuses video into 'Mnemonic'


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Quantum Theatre usually can be found in an outdoor setting at this time of year, a park or courtyard as befits the play of the moment. But there's nothing usual about "Mnemonic," a theatrical event when it was debuted by the British company Complicite in 1999 and quickly reached New York.

The play that twists the concepts of what we know and what we remember, and how the present and future are connected to the past, called for a change of mindset for a Quantum summer show.

'Mnemonic'

Where: Quantum Theatre at Kirkwood Building, 215 N. Highland Ave. (entrance on left side of building, facing courtyard), East Liberty.

When: July 5-28. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Check quantumtheatre.com for events and discussions.

Tickets: $41 general admission, quantumtheatre.com or 412-362-1713.

"This particular show wants to be inside because of all the amazing technology it has, and we added video to that list," says Karla Boos, the company's founder and the director of "Mnemonic."

The play as conceived by Complicite featured a few projections, but video plays a big part in the Quantum interpretation. One big reason was the chance for a reteaming with Joe Seamans, who created video for Quantum's "Ainadamar" last year and is usually a documentary filmmaker (PBS's "Frontline") by trade. The funky space inside the Kirkman Building in East Liberty gives the video designer three surfaces to work on, each framed in a different rectangular shape.

Mr. Seamans is among the team members of the current production who saw Complicite's "Mnemonic" in the '90s. He wasn't an avid theatergoer when he attended the play in New York, but recalled it was provocative and perplexing.

"I was very moved by it, but I wasn't sure why," he says, laughing.

After spending some time with the work more than a decade later, "I think it's about how the mind works," he says. "The fragmented thoughts, these odd segue ways that go from one association to another. There are all these clever things in the play that come up: The watch is broken, there are broken bones ... sort of the way you assemble your dreams."

Which is a segue, of sorts, to how Ms. Boos put together her dream team for this production.

"Of our assemblage of artists, five of us working on the project saw it 15 years ago, not knowing each other, not knowing we would be destined to work together on it," says the director, who was present for the play's opening night in London.

She immediately began seeking the rights, even before the production went on tour. She conjectured that Complicite's Simon McBurney may have been willing to share the work now because she reminded him that they each showed works at Madrid's Festival de Otono in 2005. "At the opening-night party, I turned around and there he was. In that moment, what I thought about was, 'Mnemonic.' ... The truth is, I have no idea why now. Maybe they were just ready to let it go."

What they have on their hands is interlocking stories that would seem to have nothing in common, except that of course they do. There's the discovery in 1991 of the Neolithic Ice Man known as Otzi, Europe's oldest natural human mummy, and what was learned from studying the body.

Then there's a present-day woman who leaves a cryptic message before disappearing.

"Hers is a journey of discovery," Ms. Boos said. "She's looking for the father she never knew. He was a man who migrated in the middle of the 20th century due to war. We are meant to draw parallels from our contemporary times and the reasons we have for migrations today to the story, as we come to understand it, of the Ice Man. Five thousand years separate these stories, but it's wonderful we feel we can empathize with both characters in the same way and make some conclusions about human nature -- we are more connected to that Ice Man than we would imagine."

Malcolm Tulip, who played the title role in last season's "John Gabriel Borkman" for Quantum, has directed a student production of "Mnemonic" at the University of Michigan and is one of the cast members who saw the play all those years ago. As a member of Quantum's cast, his actions intersect with the videos and voice-overs that shape a viewing of the play.

"The way this main character Virgil learns about the Ice Man, it was through television and radio broadcasts," Ms. Boos explained. "Joe Seamans takes it a step further, and we see what these broadcasts trigger in the imagination. And he went one further. You always ask the question, 'Why are you doing this play?' But you also ask the question, 'Why do it now?' We were asking ourselves what's different about now compared to Complicite's time. It's something that has to do with time and nature. I don't know how many people believe there is a 5,000 years from now, and I don't know that that was a thought then."

In creating the 30 evocative video clips for "Mnemonic," Mr. Seamans relied as much as possible on natural imagery, such as time-lapsed clouds to suggest turbulence. "I was very aware of not picture-pointing, where someone says, 'It's broken,' and you see something that's broken," he says.

The video designer and director have an easy working relationship in which they bounce ideas around to arrive at a consensus. Not so easy is paring down or expanding clips to be timed to all of the elements that make up a scene -- light, sound, spacing, costume changes -- including cases where images anticipate action.

"Figuring it all out is what the fun of it is," Mr. Seamans says.

And just in case all of that isn't enough to keep track of, there's a chair puppet.

"You won't believe what that has to do," Ms. Boos says, then clams up about what it does.

"I want it to be a surprise," she says.

theater - mobilehome

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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