by SOPHIE KERMAN
Memory is a complicated organism, particularly when endless streams of information (both memorable and not) are available at the touch of a button. Rachel Jendrzejewski, more a theater artist than a playwright, may be right in choosing to explore memory through looser forms of movement and linguistic collage, rather than through the stricter structures of traditional theater. In Meronymy, incoming memories can valuable treasures or unnecessary clutter, and as a team of mental helpers attempt to sort out which is which, we begin to see a visual representation of information overload.
Jendrzejewski bases her portrait of memory intake and storage on a concept from the 5th century B.C.: when a Greek poet, Simonides, was the sole survivor of a banquet hall collapse, he remembered every person there by mentally reconstructing the room and walking through the space. Similarly, Jendrzejewski posits that our own memories can function in the same way, where new pieces of information (in Meronymy, arriving in the form of UPS deliveries) are sorted into their own specialized places in one’s mental house. (This idea is explored further in an entertaining and fascinating article by Joshua Foer about using this technique to set a new record at the USA Memory Championships.)
To portray this abstract idea on stage, designer Gary Johnson has created an intriguing set: a spare, minimalist living room with plenty of room in the basement for unused boxes of memory. There is also a “cloud” overhead where, presumably, we let the internet pick up some of the slack when we can’t find enough room in our own brains. The audience can also visualize the memory house in several ways thanks to a large dollhouse where the cast places even more memory parcels. Though a charming idea, the dollhouse is more a distraction than a visual aid; the cast could have made a fuller and more effective use of the architecture on stage if they spent less time on the miniature version.
As Etymology (Joshua Allen, providing occasional dry comedy) arrives at the door with an endless stream of memory packets, the anxious Jargon (Miriam Must) has to receive each one and instruct Synechdoche (Ashley Rose Montondo), Abbreviation (Christian Bardin), and Rhyme (Candy Simmons) about where to put them. (Unfortunately, Jendrzejewski does not make use of the potential in her characters’ names: although we hear some rhyme by the end of the play, we are never shown what it might mean to be the physical embodiment of these rhetorical devices.) The routine of receiving and processing memory is well-orchestrated, and Jendrzejewski’s text with Laura Holway‘s choreography reflects the simultaneous chaos and harmony of a highly active brain.
When an important package arrives that Jargon is reluctant to receive, though – perhaps a sad or uncomfortable bit of data to be filed away – the balance of the system is upset. The subsequent memory breakdown is a provocative concept, but Jendrzejewski does not push her line of questioning quite far enough: what happens when we refuse to process a memory, and how long can we push that memory away? The idea of willful repression may venture further into Freudian territory than Jendrzejewski (with her interest in technology and biology) is willing to go, but Meronymy‘s treatment of the unwanted box is anticlimatic, given how challenging – even cataclysmic – it could have been.
(Parenthetically, one theoretical flaw of this production is the lack of distinction between information and emotional memory. The objects arriving in Etymology’s packages are lack any emotional valence; I wonder where they would have been placed if they were more than just neutral facts to be sorted?)
As an audience member fairly unfamiliar with the vocabulary of this type of movement piece, Meronymy was difficult. In the opening sequences, designed to introduce the audience to the idea of the memory house, it took a long time for me to piece together a structure which is not ultimately very complicated. Mental architecture is a compelling concept whose rich potential goes untapped in this piece; Meronymy‘s interplays of text and choreography are interesting, but its conclusions are, unfortunately, less of a novelty.
Meronymy by Rachel Jendrzejewski. At the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th St. Minneapolis, MN 55403, October 12-28, 2012. Tickets $8-20 at http://www.redeyetheater.org/tickets.