I find myself slogging on the weekend today, but only because I had such a good time watching and thinking about Rabih Mroué's Riding on a Cloud at On the Boards last night. Since the show's only going to run today and tomorrow, I wanted to strongly encourage you to see it while you still can.
Riding on a Cloud has sort of a Krapp's Last Tape set-up: Yasser sits at a table downstage, and, using only his left hand, plays a bunch of tapes and CDs. Little videos project on a large screen, so you split your time watching the screen and watching Yasser watch the screen. Yasser narrates in Arabic (with English subtitles) and occasionally sings. As the vignettes play out, you piece together the way Yasser pieces together his life.
Yasser starts out as a promising student growing up in Beirut. He is very involved in politics and literature. At 17 years old he gets sniped while crossing a street. The shooting leaves him slightly aphasic and slightly paralyzed. Also, images stop signifying anything to him. He can hold a pen and know it's a pen, but a photo of a pen is nothing more than a collection of shapes and colors. He can't watch theater anymore because he perceives the actors as real people who are going through real experiences. When the actors die onstage, to him they really die, and so he feels distraught. The man is basically a living embodiment of all the post-modern questions about the nature of performance and the limits of representation. (Of course, so are we all, but Yasser feels those questions whereas we intellectualize them, use language and art to hold them at a distance.) Curious artist that he is, Yasser starts taking videos every day for a couple decades, some of which he presents to us on the screen.
The videos stitch together like a long lyric poem. Certain images and ideas recur, gather significance, and serve to propel the piece forward—pianos, representation, fragmented body parts (non-gruesome), the materiality of language, matches. For months after the shooting he claims he cannot dream. Later on he falls in love with a woman whose name translates to "dream" in English. That sort of thing happens a lot. And speaking of English—the English sentences in this play are gorgeous and remind me of the muted power of Sebald in The Emigrants. When Yasser speaks the sentences in Arabic, however, the music turns way up.
One of the most moving/intellectually fascinating moments that enacts all the stuff I'm talking about here: The audience stares at Yasser as he stares at a photograph of the window where his would-be assassin was positioned, all the while knowing that Yasser primarily views the scene as a conglomeration of shapes and colors. Mentally, of course, he knows the photo represents that spot, but he doesn't register that representation. He only registers occurrences, not images of occurrences. (C.f. Ben Lener's poem "Didactic Elegy" for more on the distinction between the powers of occurrences vs. the powers of images of occurrences.)
If you're into Stevens's thinking about the relationship between reality and imagination, Pessoa's thinking about artistic identity, Barthes's thinking about the way in which our body inhabits many bodies, and if you're at all interested in language and trauma, then you want to watch the Mroué brothers reinvigorate all that thinking through Yasser's moving and humorous story.
Though these ideas might seem academic or fusty and well-worn, there's absolutely zero pretension in this play. There's also zero self-pity. There is only curiosity and warmth and a little bit of sadness. Yasser walks out in some clothes. He plays some CDs. He tells this story. All of this is performance. None of it is.