When the Metro Theater Company's resident playwright/actor, Nicholas Kryah, heard about the discovery in 1991 of a neolithic man frozen in a remote area of the Alps with his kitbag and clothing, he was immediately mesmerized. "The Stone Age has always been interesting because it's so vague," he explains. "We don't know anything about it. When the body of the iceman was found, I was fascinated. It was like the blank pages of a book." Many pages and several years later, Kryah and the widely acclaimed Metro Theatre Company will debut Kryah's play inspired by the find, called Iceman: A New Play for the Millennium, with music composed by Jim Mobberley and performed by the Nuclear Percussion Ensemble, at Washington University's Edison Theatre this weekend.
"I'm a history buff," Kryah explains, "a pre-history buff. Loved dinosaurs and fossils when I was a kid. I read voraciously, and I get into these periods of time where I want to find out everything I can." But what about an era that had no written language and only the merest artifacts to suggest "culture," like arrowheads, cave paintings and evidence of burial rituals? So much the better for Kryah, whose visual imagination is deeply active (he's also a set designer who has created touring sets for the Muny First Stage and the children's troupe Imaginary Theatre Company).
In the play, the Iceman is represented by a character called I (played by Kryah) who shifts between the present day and a much earlier era. I is instructed by shamans, beset by paparazzi and pursued by detectives. He's an archetype and needs to examine his own life by seeing who's important to him -- family and partner. Iceman is a mystery that transforms into a psychological drama. There are comic moments and some tragically wistful ones as well. There's even a mock student pageant that purports to present the real story of life, starting with blue-green algae and including King Tut and Stonehenge. (In this scene, the bristlecone pine amusingly competes for the title of oldest thing, but at 5,000 years old it can't hold a candle to blue-green algae, which goes back hundreds of millions of years to the Cambrian era.) Sorting out the march of time as represented in the fossil record was a pleasant diversion for playwright Kryah. But he seldom strays far from his central focus: the iceman.
"What was he doing up there at this place in the Alps?" he asks. "Did he get lost? What about his family? What about his wife? Is it, John Doe goes up to herd sheep and never comes back? Someone's got to miss the guy." Finding the parallels between this character -- who was biologically and genetically us -- and his contempory descendants was a challenge for Kryah and director Carol North. "If there's one sonic throughline, it's rhythm and percussion," explains North, adding that the Nuclear Percussion Ensemble and their drumming augment and expand theatrical scenes between I and his friends and adversaries. Iceman is a theatrical piece, but the percussionists are an integral part of the action. "I knew conceptually we wanted to integrate the musicians," she says. "They weren't going to be reduced to a position in the pit. I wanted them to be part of the lifeblood of the action."
When North and Kryah first met with composer James Mobberley, a Guggenheim Fellowship winner who teaches music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, they were curious about his response to this unlikely but enticing subject matter. After all, though neolithic cultures must have had some sort of musical tradition, because some artifacts clearly have musical application, what their music might have sounded like remains enigmatic. "The first conference we had with Jim Mobberley, he asked Nick, "Is there one sound idea that sums up the production?'" she explains. "And Nick said, "A heartbeat, a pulse. A sound that moves through the ages, regardless of the continent, or culture, or language spoken. That's universal to the human experience.'"
Mobberley delighted in the challenge of writing a score in which rhythm could be basic yet completely fantastical. "We actually included a heartbeat sound and used percussion," he says. "It's the first musical sound you hear in the play. The first sound you hear is an icy wind, which is cold and inhuman, but underneath this icy wind you get the sense that something else is going on." Something else turns out to be the heartbeat of the iceman, which is integrated into the score. Gradually the sounds "move from the inhuman to the human, which is exactly what happens in the play itself," concludes Mobberley. "I moves from being clueless about humanity and ends up having discovered some things."
"Discovering some things" might be a subhead for the mandate of Metro Theater Company, which is adored by its youthful audiences but lacks a profile among adult theatergoers. This is primarily because MTC lacks a regular local theater and set schedule of offerings. Founded 27 years ago, this group was designed with two principles in mind. "First, we're a touring company, and those reasons go back to the '60s, when we would go into places where people are so they don't have to come to a theater," says Kryah, whose experience with MTC began in 1977." And all the things we do are original or a co-commission with another theater company."
Mostly MTC can be seen in schools and other venues for young people. "Our shows are designed and built and directed so they can play in a gym or cafeteria or the Kennedy Center, which we've played five times," says Kryah. The company hopes that Iceman (which will have other public performances in April) will be seen by people of all ages. "Our favorite audience is the family audience, because they're the most reflective of society at its best. There's so much categorization -- kids go to school, parents go to the office, grandparents go to the nursing home. When do people have a chance to come together? Theater can do that."
Iceman is presented at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21 and 22, at Washington University's Edison Theatre. Call MetroTix, 534-1111, or the Edison Theatre box office, 935-6543, for tickets.