A character in Lebanese theater artist Rabih Mroué’s Looking for a Missing Employee is named Joseph K., but Mroué assures viewers that he is not the same as Kafka’s Josef K., the beleagured protagonist of The Trial. It’s a knowing, ironic reference: the unfair, Byzantine world of law enforcement in Beirut as portrayed by Mroué is supremely Kafkaesque.
The missing employee is a man who worked at Beirut’s Ministry of Finance in the 1990s. In Looking — presented this weekend at the Walker Art Center as part of the Out There series — Mroué pages through three notebooks’ worth of newspaper clippings describing the months-long process of discerning how and why the man suddenly disappeared one day. It’s a confusing case, made no less confusing by the often hapless, apparently corrupt officials investigating the matter.
Mroué himself sits in the audience, the contents of his desk projected onto a screen for the audience to see, along with a projection of Mroué’s face and a projection depicting the drawing an assistant creates to chart the investigation graphically. It’s an elegant setup, but the story Mroué tells is less than gripping, precisely because we quickly realize there are strongly arbitrary elements to the manner in which justice will or will not be served. The presentation effectively depicts the frustration of living under an ineffective bureaucracy, but larger questions of truth, fate, and human nature are only hinted at.
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. Perhaps the most compelling moment came at the very conclusion, when Mroué fixed his (projected) gaze on the audience and refused to look away, even as we all filed out of the McGuire Theater. The performance may be over, Mroué seemed to be indicating, but his case is far from closed.