“Between the truth and the lie there is a hair…” — Rabih Mroué, Looking for a missing employee
It is preposterously easy to imagine the kind of person who would leave the theater after seeing Rabih Mroué’s Looking for a missing employee, currently playing at On the Boards through two more performances today (one at 4:00p.m. and another at 8:00p.m.), feeling a misplaced sense of jingoistic superiority. “There but for the grace of god,” you could imagine them thinking, “at least that sort of thing would never happen here.”
To be sure, it isn’t like Mroué provides an easy map to follow. Scratch that, the map he provides with his tale is easy enough to follow; he is a charming, amiable, witty and intelligent presence while guiding the audience through the circuitous path his story entails. He simply leaves them to their own devices to figure out exactly where it is they’ve arrived.
The story begins simply enough: Mroué informs us that for most of his life he has collected newspaper clippings of people who have been “disappeared,” whether by the government or other mysterious circumstances — he doesn’t specify. Part of the appeal is the questions the phenomenon raise: Given that Lebanon, his home state, is so small in terms of size and population (slightly over 4 million citizens in a country 2/3 the size of Connecticut), how could somebody — anybody — simply disappear?
Mroué then shows us a notebook filled with these clippings, and it is here that he starts to play with the audience’s mind. It isn’t that Mroué is an unreliable narrator, exactly, it’s that his self-motivated investigation has him traversing some unreliable sources. After having a bit of good-natured fun at our expense, he then chooses one particular missing person, a civil servant, and explains that he had followed the story as it unfolded through two Beirut newspapers. He became so obsessed that after it was all said and done, he went to a third newspaper and collected everything they had written about the disappearance. It is from here that the story truly unfolds.
To highlight all of the surface artificiality in the presentation, the stage is set up is rudimentary; there is a desk center stage, where an image of Mroué is projected (he is seated in the audience for the performance). Behind this, there is a large screen where one half is dedicated to a projection of Mroué’s notebooks; on the other half, an assistant attempts to keep track of the details as they unfold. The attempt becomes farcical before the tale has even begun, because it is quickly evident that even when comparing three separate “legitimate” news sources against each other, a high amount of dissembling is taking place.
Rather than getting into the specifics of the tale — mere description would rob the piece of its power — suffice it to say that accusations fly, new suspects are introduced haphazardly, there is an internecine battle between a number of governmental agencies. Everyone is under suspicion, even the clerk’s wife is arrested a couple of times; there are charges of embezzlement and monetary forgery leveled at no one in particular, it’s all innuendo; all the while, everyone insists on their right to know the truth and getting fair treatment in the press. This is laughable because even something as concrete as how much money was allegedly embezzled fluctuates wildly, to understate things.
By the end of the piece, covering a span of time lasting only three months, there have been more twists and developments than in a given James Ellroy novel. That reference is not used lightly, for despite his laconic and sardonic delivery, the faithfulness with which Mroué betrays an Ellroy-esque determination to get at…not the truth, nor the lie, but that space in between — the hair mentioned in the quote above; Looking is the result of simply chiseling away at the concrete barriers keeping the Lebanese population from truly understanding the events unfolding around them.
Given this, it is only natural for this particular narrator to be irreverent in sharing this story. The humor provided comes from a place that’s beyond exasperation. It might seem flippant to stop in the middle of the story, leaving several narrative threads regarding concerned family members, and the mystery surrounding the missing employee, hanging, in order to share five minutes’ worth of classical music; but what better way to illustrate a two week gap where nothing is printed in relation to this story? No new developments, no editorials, no comments, nothing; this after nearly daily revelations in the weeks prior. Laughter and satire is the only sane response; thankfully these are plentiful throughout the performance.
Then it’s over, a truth (or at least a truth as depicted in the newspapers) has been arrived at, and the audience is sent back to their worlds. Having looked into the harrowing depths of an irresponsible government and press, one could begin to feel relieved that the mess is just happening “over there.” One would be willfully ignoring the landscape Mroué’s map has led us to, along with several otherwarning signs, but one could do that.
Rabih Mroué will perform a workshop production of his latest project, The Pixelated Revolution — about the role the smart phone had during the recent Arab Spring — Sunday evening at On the Boards. Mroué is an intelligent and engaging performer from a part of the world we are not often exposed to; this opportunity should not be missed. –ed
Today at 4:00p.m. and 8:00p.m. // On the Boards, 300 Roy Street // $25