MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Before … and After … and Now: Rabih Mroué’s Riding on a Cloud

On the Boards_Rabih Mroue

Fans of experimental theater and performance art are likely to already have Rabih Mroué’s latest show on their radar: titled Riding on a Cloud, it opened last night at On the Boards and plays through Sunday. But anyone interested in the issues that theater is so ideally suited to explore should see this unclassifiable performance. Anyone interested in the paradoxical truce between fiction and reality that underlies the very impulse to make art.

The Beirut-based Mroué wields a beguiling mixture of provocation and poetry, using his medium to pose fundamentally human questions about the identities we invent and the stories we fabricate to make sense of our past and present reality.

In Riding on a Cloud Mroué turns to the story of his own family– specifically of the youngest sibling, Yasser. Near the end of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1987 (when he was 17), Yasser was shot in the head by an urban sniper. He survived improbable odds, forced to slowly relearn as a young adult the lessons he had tackled in kindergarten.

Along with aphasia, one side effect of Yasser’s injury is the loss of his ability to process representations: he could no longer recognize the image of a person or thing (say, in a photograph) when abstracted from the reality — even including photographs of himself.

But the story that Riding on a Cloud seeks to tell isn’t the story of the war’s endless cycles of violence and suffering. Aside from a few specifically political references, Mroué shows no interest in dissecting blame for the war in this piece. (Some of his other theater works address different aspects of the conflict.) Most importantly, Riding on a Cloud does not offer a feel-good dramatization of “the human condition” and our capacity to heal; it’s not an entertainment to stir up emotions and then offer redemptive resolution.

Mroué works with fragmentary scenes, stringing them together by way of loose associations rather than linear narrative logic. There are many narrative tangents — the coincidence of his grandfather, Hussein Mroué (a significant Arab-Marxist philosopher), being assassinated by fundamentalists on the same day Yasser is shot by the sniper, or the sexual kindness a Soviet nurse shows Yasser when he is recovering — but before we can become too invested in any one of them, Mroué shifts his focus to provoke a fresh set of questions.

Moreover, he frames the entire piece so that we’re continually reminded of the divergence between what we’re seeing and what it seems to represent: Mroué’s dramaturgy, in other words, seeks to mirror Yasser’s Oliver Sacks-like condition — to see in it a kind of metaphor for the condition of art.

Rabih Mroué has written the script that Yasser actually performs — in Arabic, with subtitles and accompanying visuals on a large screen centerstage. Both language and visuals serve as the playwright’s tools to undermine the naive unification of what is represented with reality.  To what extent are these Yasser’s autobiographical memories, in sync with the “I” onstage who re-enacts them through narrative?  Should we understand Yasser to be representing or playing “himself”? How much is fantasy?

Through most of the show, Yasser is stationed at a desk downstage right (reminiscent of Spalding Gray). From there, casually dressed, he operates a complicated regimen of discs and tapes: a turntablist spinning memories. His voice is beautifully hypnotic, his Arabic flowing with elegant rhythms and poetic clarity. (The title Riding on a Cloud apparently comes from one of Yasser’s poems.)

But on occasion Yasser unpredictably abandons the role of performer and walks behind the screen, reappearing as a spectator of its images, of the stage. This juggling act between inside-out, role playing and reality, gives Riding on a Cloud a subtle, quizzical tone that’s best reflected by the often silent, attentive audience. We are given no cues to guide us to the “appropriate” response (which, in theater-as-entertainment typically manifests in the catharsis of corporate laughter as a relieving signal that “we get it”).

Throughout the piece are woven more abstract, non-narrative segments that give a taste of Mroué’s other projects as a video and installation artist. (Riding on a Cloud just appeared at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was performed last year at MOMA in New York City, which earlier exhibited his pigmented inkjet prints The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups drawing on cell phone images of violence.)

We see a sequence of TV screen snow shots, all the more mesmerizing in their variety: random “noise” usually left to be ignored, that here suddenly seems to offer an important clue, if only we could unlock its meaning…. Is this the image of the representations Yasser confronted after his injury?

In another memorable image, a video close-ups on a piano keyboard as five fingers painstakingly pluck out a slow melody. Its simplicity evokes the radical concentration of Arvo Pärt.

By its nature Riding on a Cloud provokes an uneasiness — the show is driven by a series of questions that beget more questions in their wake — but Mroué leavens this remarkable material with a welcome blend of warmth, humor, and humility.

The effect overall is marvelously liberating: as the artist points out in a recent interview, when we are forced to question everything, to meet reality (including ourselves) as a stranger, that means we have to abandon cliches and stereotypes as well. “You have to introduce yourself to yourself again.”

(C)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.


Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

The Coming-Soon-Park: Philippe Quesne at On the Boards

What a delightful way to launch the new season: over the weekend, On the Boards presented La mélancolie des dragons, a visual-theatrical tone poem by the Paris-based theater artist Philippe Quesne featuring his Vivarium Studio.

I’d only read about Quesnes before, having missed his previous appearance at On the Boards over four years ago in L’Effet de Serge. Once you’ve experienced his work live, en personne, it’s even more obvious that, like music, it really can’t be captured by the proxy of words.

The mise en scène initially signals that a hyper-realistic play is perhaps about to unfold: a run-down VW Rabbit sits stranded on the stage, as if exhausted from hauling a mysterious trailer. The wintry landscape is framed by snow-covered trees that are part-Chekhov, part-Stephen King: as the audience visibly shivers settling into their seats, you half wonder whether some menacing interloper would come stalking through the treeline.

But it all turns out to be the setup for a gracefully quirky homage to the evocative power of theater. The “realistic” stage picture opens up a world of surprising invention whose only unifying story line riffs on the magical connection between performer and audience.

Audience in this case enters into the picture in the figure of Isabelle, the far-from-menacing interloper who happens upon the stranded Rabbit and its inhabitants and offers to help. Though apparently a chance encounter, she is greeted warmly by a band of seven men on the road touring their “show.”

Before that comes a lengthy preludial section: the lights come up on four of these guys sitting in the car (all sporting metal-style, shoulder-length hair), sharing a bag of chips, drinking cans of Rainier beer, and rocking out to an ADD-driven setlist of AC/DC and The Scorpions.

No words, just a silent theater of gestures and movement accompanied by music. In fact, though the VW’s in dismal shape (Isabelle pokes beneath the hood, liberating alarming puffs of smoke), the sound system carries on unperturbed. Music is an integral component of Quesne’s vivarium, and later in Mélancolie the soundtrack makes way for some very apt Haydn.

Once all the characters have been revealed, spoken dialogue is introduced. We learn that these men have been peddling their nameless show: a sort of mobile, minimalist amusement park on wheels. “Really?” exclaims Isabelle in wonder. “Can you show me?”

Which is of course both Mélancolie‘s theme and process: the show-me part of theater that makes us sit up and eagerly watch, casting aside the drive for interpretation — whether that means fitting it all into a coherent plot or getting to the bottom of some putative motivation. Image is message in the world of Quesne.


Or rather, images and their enjoyment. Isabelle, and we, are treated to a parade of sometimes silly, sometimes buoyant “acts”: dancing wigs, a machine that blows bubbles, a tub of water made to spew in a “geyser,” enormous pillow-like balloons that are gathered into an installation, like a zany, tripped-out Stonehenge.

Isabelle’s reactions, and the reactions of her entertainers to her reactions, are just as fun to watch as what’s being displayed. At the climax, the varied attractions are mixed together into a lighter-than-air Gesamtkunstwerk.

Amid all the frothiness, Quesne does weave in some clever metatheatrical commentary, poking gentle fun at that logocentric need to make it all make sense.

When Isabelle is being introduced to the “installation” of books, Quesne humorously harps on an anthology of writings on melancholy and a children’s book about dragons. Aha! So that’s what it’s about!

“We are…autonome!” declared one of the entertainers, lauding their DIY inventiveness but also suggesting the best attitude for watching the show.

There’s also some delicious banter about texts versus images, and Antonin Artaud gets name checked, as if to seal the piece with experimental-theater cred. All very sweetly tongue in cheek.

Quesne’s theater artistry is rooted in his work as a visual designer for opera, theater, even exhibitions. He also likes to compare his sensibility to that of an entomologist. (He began studying insects as a hobby when he was a kid.)

But while much of the amusement of this show emerges from observing the naive, childlike wonder of Isabelle and the showmen, Quesne steers clear of any tone of mockery or superciliousness. It’s a subtle balancing act: and therein lies Mélancolie‘s real magic.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater

The Place That Is Not the Place: An Evening with Richard Maxwell


He’s been the darling of the experimental theater scene in New York for well over a decade. Last year he received the Spalding Gray Award, which honors genuinely maverick work in the theater. This weekend Seattleites have a chance to experience the latest commission by playwright and director Richard Maxwell and his New York City Players ensemble.

It’s a piece called The Evening and is being presented by On the Boards — part of the consortium that conferred the Award — following its world premiere as part of the Walker Art Center’s Out There arts festival last month in Minneapolis.

Although Maxwell has been engaged by On the Boards before (Drummer Wanted 12 years ago, back when Lane Czaplinski took over as artistic director), last night’s Seattle premiere was my first encounter with his work.
And it’s a signature of Maxwell’s theater that it sends you out into the night with the feeling that you’ve just recalled an interesting dream and now have the work of trying to figure out why it interested you and whether it’s meant to “tell” you something — or just happens to be an arresting collage of images that won’t stop flickering in your mind.

The Evening involves a cast of three characters interacting in a depressing dive bar. Beatrice (Cammisa Buerhaus) tends bar and manages the sexual advances of the hedonist Cosmo (Jim Fletcher) as well as the petulant neediness of her sorta ex-boyfriend Asi (Brian Mendes), a washed-up fighter managed by Cosmo.

Framing this “slice of life” core of The Evening is a monologue delivered by Buerhaus: she reads from a diary documentation of a (Beatrice’s?) father’s dying days, a text replete with high-flown poetic cadence and rhetoric. Then comes the pseudo-“naturalist” dialogue of the bar sequence, followed by another poetic flight — this time rendered visually, after the bar stage set has been pointedly struck and deconstructed by stage hands. The Beatrice character cocoons herself in snow-expedition wear and disappears into the now heavily fogged upstage region, where we imagine isolated wintry mountains.

During the bar sequence we learn that bartender Beatrice (who also works as a stripper) yearns to get away from it all and head to Istanbul. Testosterone-addled Asi has just won a fight but knows he is unhappy, and he can’t seem to win Beatrice back, but he doesn’t want her to go. Track suit-clad, cheesy gold chain-adorned Cosmo confines his interest in life to drinking, getting high, insulting Asi, and making the moves on Beatrice.

The characters voice a Three Sisters-ish longing to go “there,” to escape. But Cosmo at least seems content with the bar — the drab-minimalist brown wall set and slightly menacing lights are Sascha van Riel’s design — and even finds it a kind of paradise. Cosmo’s also the one who first notices the live music (written by Maxwell) that becomes part of the action when a trio of musicians walk in and start that evening’s gig. He tries to incorporate the music into his exchanges with Asi and Beatrice.

Is this coda meant to be a vision of the adventure Beatrice pursues after bringing the situation at the bar to a violent denouement? Was it her father who died, as recounted in the “prologue,” thus lending a layer of motivation to her need to snap out of the hopeless humdrum patterns we see in the more Edward Hopper-esque scenes?

Ah, there’s the rub: Maxwell’s dramaturgy is neo-Brechtian in that it de-familiarizes the familiar by highlighting its theatricality. The whole business of “motivation” becomes suspect, just as the seemingly “real-life” setting deliberately draws attention to the artifice of its naturalism. The actors deliver lines that can make sense from moment to moment but that add up to a maze of non-sequiturs and repeated patterns. And Maxwell plays with the compositional cliché of the triangle, with the archetypes that get triggered from seeing the clues he gives us to each character.

The apparently “realistic” throughline in The Evening, which we’re so conditioned by TV and mainstream film to expect, to be served, is a decoy. (There’s even a TV set hoisted above the bar showing a sports channel as part of the set, but it acquires a Big Brotherish aura as the play continues.)

We become frustrated by the lack of all the rest following suit (understandable motivation, easy-to-read cause and effect etc.) — which is exactly what Maxwell seems to be aiming for. It reminds me of the effect of hyper-realist paintings: beneath the shimmering, “life-like” detail, a kind of uncanny valley opens up where we find ourselves in a twilight zone. The zone of evening.

So The Evening exaggerates realism to undermine it. And even the framing parts seem to be “placeholders” for the deeper aspects of an evening in the theater: these are the “visionary” parts that are meant to endow the proceedings with meaning, the “take-away” that tells us our time was well spent.

Yet in just 60 minutes — the duration of The Evening — the theatrical trickster Maxwell lays out a crossword puzzle of clues, teases, resemblances, and images that isn’t meant to be solved. What’s also striking is the pivotal role of audience response. Last night a fair group of spectators seemed bent on “figuring it out” by chuckling and guffawing as if Maxwell were merely endeavoring parody of theatrical clichés — turning the experience at times into a kind of meta-sitcom.

I found that adversely affected the haunting strangeness of The Evening — an attempt to re-familiarize what’s happening onstage. Sure, Cosmo might be a sloppy, self-satisfied creep — or, rather, Fletcher plays Cosmo playing that archetype — but Maxwell constructs a context for these characters that speed-bumps our knee-jerk tendency to read them as we would read a group of people when, say, we stroll into a bar for the evening. It’s the empty spaces that are left to resonate — and, as Beatrice/Buerhaus remarks in the opening section, meditating on the father’s death, “they say that atoms are made of 99.9% empty space.”

If you go: Richard Maxwell’s The Evening plays at On the Boards through this weekend, 100 West Roy Street. After the Friday performance there will be a post-show discussion with Richard Maxwell and Todd London; following Sat’s performance the musicians will continue with post-show music. Tickets here.

(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, playwrights, review, theater

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