Looking for the Missing Employee
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 6, 2012
It’s all in the details, and the details are what give Rabih Mroué’s Looking for a Missing Employee—a Spalding Gray-type conversation with the audience—its dark humor and its thought-provoking revelations about universality. According to Mroué, his one-man performance is meant to capture the political and social situation in Lebanon without passing judgment, without coming to conclusions, only to raise questions about what is reportedly happening there and give people something to think about when they leave the theater. Mroué, an appealing performer with more than a twinkle of humor in an otherwise straightforward delivery, confabulates well.
What are the details surrounding the employee’s disappearance? Mostly, they are questionable. They come from newspaper articles covering the case of Rafat Suleiman, collected by Mroué and stored in three well-worn notebooks.
Let me set the stage. On the stage are three screens with projections.
Center stage screen—a projected mid-shot of a seated Mroué looks at the audience as the flesh and blood Mroué sits with the audience in the back. He is present yet invisible. From the screen, he describes his interest in the missing people reported in the newspapers. He has clipped these articles and pasted them in notebooks. Mroué, like an unbiased reporter, summarizes the articles, all from Arabic papers, as if he’s telling the story for the first time.
Right screen—Mroué’s notebooks, resting on a table, are projected onto this screen. His disembodied hands open the notebooks right to left, flip the pages, and unfold headlines and articles of missing people in sync with the narration of the center screen. Some articles flip up, some fold to the right, others to the left. He names each missing person. Their stories seem to be safe with him. On occasion, Mroué reaches for another notebook to make a point. The visual motions are unexpected and engaging.
Left screen—Mroué’s narration is graphically recorded for the audience. This pictorial account begins on the day Rafat Suleiman, an employee at the Ministry of Finance, is reported missing. A simple stick figure in the middle of the screen represents Suleiman, and a tick is drawn on a horizontal line each day an article about Suleiman appears. As Mroué narrates in the center screen, his hands on the right screen touch the pertinent articles, such as those shedding light on the character of the missing man. He’s a minor functionary, recently promoted. He is generous, a dedicated husband, a bon vivant, homely. His attributes are duly recorded on the left screen. Subsequent stories accuse Suleiman of embezzlement, although there is no official complaint. At first 4.5 billion Lebanese pounds are reported missing, but the amount in later articles fluctuates wildly. All of the amounts are recorded on the screen to the left as if they are profits or losses. The chronicle has Suleiman fleeing with the funds to southern Lebanon, Cairo, Brazil, Syria, and Zaire. This, too, is listed on the screen. Suleiman’s wife appeals several times to the public; she is interrogated for four hours. A new report states that 42 billion is missing. Suleiman’s wife is arrested. She says, “Is it possible that one minor employee would steal 41 [sic] billion pounds by himself?” Others are implicated from the ministries of Refugees, Higher Education, Defense, Information, Tourism as well as the Prime Minister and the President. As this is recorded, the screen becomes a puzzle of information, misinformation, and blatant inconsistencies. It is a political playground in Lebanon. Others are arrested for forging stamps. Is this related? Pictures show the Finance Minister and Minister of Defense in Cairo. A real clue? And, there is more.
Each screen adds dimension to the performance; Mroué’s casual delivery lends intimacy and humor to the performance and occasional pauses or a raised eyebrow indicates that even he—or maybe especially he—can’t believe what he is reading. That’s why he is here: to share his bafflement with others; to reflect on issues, both large and small; to examine how his world works.
Based on actual newspaper clippings, Looking for a Missing Employee is Mroué’s reflection on Lebanon’s political and social climate. The clippings report the news, but it is unclear who the source is, where the information is coming from. Why did Suleiman vanish? Was he a scapegoat? Employee mixes fact and fiction so that it is difficult to differentiate one from the other, difficult to determine who is credible. The inconsistencies are blatant, but Mroué’s presentation is sincere. He provides few answers, but provides enough thought-provoking material to stimulate questions and discussion. And, while the material seems wildly fantastic, it also sounds dangerously familiar.