A leaf. A rock. A frozen body. People in search and flight. Memory. These are some elements woven together in "Mnemonic" at Quantum Theatre.
The initial organizing image is a finely veined leaf, its ribs branching out into ever-smaller tributaries. It might be a family tree, one person preceded by two parents, preceded by four, then eight, 16, and soon enough, in not so many generations, reaching back to millions, all within recorded history.
Complicate that family tree with geography and ethnicity, and we are all clearly needles in a biological haystack.
But we are also individuals, and "Mnemonic" invokes memory as its chief theme and traces twin mysteries, seeking the identity of an ancient corpse and a modern missing person. The result is a serious, inventive play, sometimes moving, funny or bewildering, variously tender, frustrating and poetic.
Does that sound like an entertainment for July? It is less so than a thoughtful adventure that generates questions about identity, purpose and destination.
Its bewilderment comes mainly from the mode of telling, in which a cast of seven uses a largely bare stage, projections and few but key props to tell several stories that swarm over Europe, reaching further and further backward in time, as stories do.
At intermission, I heard some expressions of bewilderment, but I think that has more to do with the layered telling than with the obscurity of what is told. No, discovered. "Mnemonic" is a double mystery.
One story is of the Iceman, a 5,200-year-old mountaineer whose body was found perfectly preserved in the Alps in 1991. Simultaneously, there's Alice, who suddenly sets out from London, compelled to find the father she never knew.
Both stories involve journeys. Alice's is obvious, as she heads eastward, having adventures, exposed to dangers. The Iceman was taking a more perilous journey into the mountains -- why? More humorously, in studying him, scientists of different nations sift evidence and take their own journeys of discovery.
Meanwhile, Simon, a focal point of sorts, begins the evening with a discourse on memory and may actually be dreaming much of what follows -- or perhaps that's a red herring. He seeks Alice, eventually tracking her by cell phone. The actor who plays Simon also plays the Iceman, if we needed further instruction to consider the parallels among the journeys taken.
Those journeys include Quantum's, in pursuit of how to tell a complex story specifically identified with its "devisers," the Complicite company. (Uncharacteristically, because director Karla Boos believes a work must stand for itself, she writes about this process in the program.) And of course there is our own journey toward understanding.
Our journey is aided and sometimes confused by the way the story is told, now simple, now frantic. Some choreographic passages seem indulgent. But the evening is securely anchored in Iceman, Alice, Simon, a few other recurring characters, video projections and a chair and a rock.
The projections by Joe Seamans, often startlingly beautiful in themselves, help organize the journey, hurtling us across Europe along with the people. They are an audience favorite.
That collapsible chair sometimes takes the place of the Iceman, who is also played by a naked actor. This nudity seems to me an appropriate visualization of anonymity and vulnerability, qualities that gradually transfer to the chair. (By the way, the female nudity of the original Complicite production, with its own metaphoric parallels, has been excised.)
That rock -- 1,038 pounds, perhaps four cubic feet and 400 million years old ("give or take 50 million years") -- is a sort of anchor, suggesting the scale in which 5,100 years is an eye-blink, mocking our borders and passports. It sits as silent counterpoint to an epic of flight and migration in an ethnic maelstrom.
The story and the thoughts it stirs often dwarf the actors who embody it. Carolina Loyola-Garcia is a feeling, compelling Alice, seizing what human contact she can as she's driven like a leaf in a stream. Malcolm Tulip works hard as the omnipresent Simon/Iceman (consider the parallels between them), although his opening lecture is too ingratiating by half, as if trying to cajole the audience.
Among the many roles played by the five others, standouts include Ken Bolden's sympathetic Swiss scientist, who keeps bringing us back to the facts; Patrick Jordan's multicultural taxi driver, not to mention his crass American tourist; and Anand Nagraj's brief encounter on a train. Katya Stepanov and Antonio Marziale contribute quick, incisive portraits to the swirl of humanity on the move.
The fine dialect work is supervised by Janet Madelle Feindel. Sometimes it's even too good, until your ears tune it in.
Based on a small random sample of audience response, I might say "Mnemonic" is too good for its audience, except that the Quantum audience is as good as it gets in Pittsburgh (adventurous, intelligent, willing). The play is good in unfamiliar ways that take a lot of audience engagement. Figuring out what's going on is exactly the point, but you wouldn't want it explained to you -- you take the journey yourself.
Hence the difficulty of this review. You and I could have a great conversation after you've seen it. Stop me on the street.
The most moving moment is when the chair becomes alive, a vivid expression of Shakespeare's line: "Is man ... no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal?" Yes, but one who can be re-membered (think about it), capable also of humor and love.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.