What was he doing? Where are you now? What does nakedness remind us of?

Jessica Boullion

These questions repeat themselves incessantly in this weekend’s startlingly impressive Basement Arts production, “Mnemonic.” A complex study of memory, our attachment to the past and our ability to decipher reality from imagination, “Mnemonic” succeeds in transporting the audience into the realm of the mind.

The show is a careful combination of precise technology, a complex script and some heavy acting, allowing Music School senior Stephen Sposito to assert himself as a promising young director in the theater department.

The play’s centerpiece is the shriveled body of a 5,000-year-old iceman, discovered in the Alps by travelers in 1991. As a dedicated scientist tries to piece together the enigmatic past of this Neolithic John Doe, the show simultaneously tracks the sleepless nights of Virgil, a modern man desperately searching for his runaway girlfriend Alice.

Alice has her own demons to chase. She hasn’t been seen since her mother’s funeral nine months ago.

Just what exactly do these seemingly unconnected stories have in common? The answer is everything – or at least the memory of everything.

For starters, the iceman and Virgil are played by the same actor. The naked body of the iceman is also the naked body of Virgil, lying in his bed waiting for the phone to ring. Of course, Alice is long gone by this point, traveling through Europe on a fruitless pilgrimage to find her father. She travels from Paris to Warsaw to Riga to Kiev trying, it seems, to grab hold of her past and free herself from the present.

What was he doing?

The question is posed over and over again by the scientist scrutinizing the Iceman’s body, spread out naked (seriously) on the lab bench. Shielding the body from a barrage of pesky reporters, the scientist tries in vain to convey the profound importance of this anthropological find. But his words fall on deaf ears – one of the reporters even asks how much the body is worth.

Fade to Virgil’s dark apartment.

When the phone finally rings after nine months, Alice’s face is actually projected onto his white T-shirt when he picks up the phone. The perils of a bad phone connection are gravely illustrated as Virgil tries to make out Alice’s hysterical voice as her image flickers on his chest. The connection is lost, and her face disappears. The scene is a true demonstration of the theatrical possibilities when fine acting meets technological creativity.

Where are you now?

A desperate Virgil asks the question repeatedly when Alice calls back five minutes later. But since it’s only 30 minutes into the play, Alice has plenty of time to relay the details of her nine-month odyssey before telling her boyfriend any concrete information.

Alice’s journey began when she discovered her father, whom she believed dead since childhood, is actually alive. Or at least that is what a guest at her mother’s funeral told her. Without hesitating, she took all the couple’s money and hopped a train to Paris. She staggers in and out of European countries, gathering shreds of evidence about her father (he was a Jewish piano player, apparently), only to land cold and broke in a hotel room in Northern Italy. Ironically, the same town in which the iceman is being studied.

The show continues this way, switching back and forth between the iceman and this phone conversation, begging the question – are they really that different?

One day, these problems between Alice and Virgil – the crisis of getting her home, finding out where she is – will be as old and lost and the iceman on the scientist’s table.

It is this very notion that drives Alice to uncover her roots, and rummage for bits and pieces of her father’s life. The only problem is that her more recent memories stand in the way, and ultimately Virgil is able to coax her back to the present.

And what does nakedness remind of us? It reminds us of our vulnerability, of our universal sameness – from the Iceman to Alice.

It also makes for some tricky staging to ensure that Virgil/Iceman is not exposed full-frontal to the audience.

A careful mediation on memory and the incomprehensible vastness of the past, “Mnemonic” is the student-directed production not to miss this season. It’s an extraordinary feat of theatrical philosophy, innovative technology and a culmination of four years’ hard work on the part of student director Sposito.

Today at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. and Saturday at 7 p.m.
At the Walgreen Center

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