Last time Beirut-born theater artist Rabih Mroué was featured in the Walker Art Center’s annual Out There series, he came to town with Looking for a Missing Employee, a show about the Kafka-esque bureaucracy at the Lebanese Ministry of Finance. At the time (2013), I wrote, “The performer’s style — a faux naïveté and hammy schtick — clearly entertained many audience members on Thursday night, but increasingly grated on me as the performance dragged on.”
There’s no hammy schtick in Riding on a Cloud, the show Mroué is presenting this year: it’s a poignant portrait of his younger brother Yasser. At age 17, during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s, Yasser was struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet. He barely survived, sustaining brain damage that caused difficulties with movement on the right side of his body, with the use of language, and with the perception of representation versus reality.
In the show — communicating largely through physical performance, taped voiceovers, and films he’s seemingly made (some of what seems to be real here may not actually be) — Yasser explains that he stopped going to the theater because he had difficulty understanding that the actions represented on stage weren’t real.
Perhaps not coincidentally, his brother Rabih has become a theater artist who’s particularly interested in the thin line between reality and representation. In a note from Yasser featured in the show and a program note, the younger Mroué writes, “We agreed that I am now on stage. I am playing a character that has the same name as me. My name is Yasser. I am a fictitious character.”
This recalls Rabih’s character from Looking for a Missing Employee, who was named Joseph — not Josef — K. Sometimes a dramatized presentation can get closer to the heart of the truth than a straight story, an insight that in a way is at the heart of all storytelling.
The understated Riding on a Cloud is gentle and affectionate, yet also starkly presented. Yasser sits at a desk on a largely bare stage, making his way through a pile of DVDs and a pile of cassettes as his story slowly comes into focus over the course of 75 minutes. Rabih doesn’t appear until the show’s conclusion, a warm shared moment between the brothers.
Riding on a Cloud touches on big themes — the meaning of personhood, the nature of family, war and peace — but it doesn’t push them too hard. This show is about Yasser’s story (though “this is not my real story”) and his real thoughts (though “these are not my thoughts”). Sometimes, it’s when we most doubt what’s real that we cling to one another most tightly.