Something strange was going on with the phone connection. I was interviewing Lebanese artist and performer Rabih Mroué on a call to his Beirut home when I asked him about artistic freedom and the Arab Spring.
As he began to answer, the line went dead. I called him back on his cellphone. He answered promptly, and began to explain that Lebanon has relatively more freedoms than its neighbors, but that artworks still had to go through a censorship office in the Interior Department.
The word "censorship" could have triggered something, because the second connection then got funny. I could only hear a burst of sound every three or four seconds, then silence. It sounded like driving on a flat tire. I hung up and rang him again several times on both lines. No answer.
Before we lost our connection, Mroué said he no longer performs certain satirical pieces in his home country because of threats made against him.
If Mroué makes it safely out of Beirut, he will land in the Twin Cities with a multimedia performance piece, "Looking for a Missing Employee." It is about graft, corruption and the value of a life in a place that looks like his home country.
"Missing Employee" is part of the monthlong Out There festival of new performances at Walker Art Center that opens Thursday. This year's festival spotlights young, international auteurs. In addition to Mroué, the lineup includes Argentinian Mariano Pensotti, whose piece, "El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco" ("The Past Is a Grotesque Animal"), deals with the stagnating effects of his nation's debt meltdown; Japanese provocateur Toshiki Okada, whose "Hot Pepper, Air Conditioning, and the Farewell Speech" follows low-level office employees who find themselves disposable among the ravages of capitalism, and a new work by American Young Jean Lee.
"All of these artists have singular, powerful visions," said Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at the Walker. "It's not just that they are all more connected through technology and ideas than ever before. They show that the world is small and we're all part of the same conversation."
Mroué began to talk about his Eastern European-style political and cultural critiques. He created "Missing Employee" from newspaper clippings, he said. As he read, he asked, "Why are all these people disappearing? Where have they gone?"
"I play a detective, and my only evidence is the news clips about a financial employee who has gone missing," he said. "It turns out the disappearance is part of an embezzlement scandal."
In his debut U.S. tour -- he will travel to New York and elsewhere during his visit -- Mroué also will premiere a smaller piece called "Hussein," about the revolution and slaughter unfolding next door in Syria.
"It's a reflection on the use of mobile phones by the protesters, how they're trying to find ways to record and document this event," he said. "In other words, it starts with a question: Are the Syrian people recording their own deaths?"
If Mroué works under threat from the state, Young Jean Lee puts the pressure on herself. In the nine years since she suddenly left a doctoral program at Berkeley, where she had completed everything but her dissertation on Shakespeare, she has become known as an inventive theater-maker and playwright.
The Obie winner has addressed subjects in her heady, sometimes abrasive style, including religion ("Church"), stubborn racial attitudes ("The Shipment") and her Asian heritage ("Songs of the Dragon Flying to Heaven").
"I do each show as a way of pushing myself as far as possible out of my comfort zone," she said. "Once I've done a show, I've learned how to make that kind of show.
"One of the reasons a lot of artists are excited early in their careers is that they don't know what they're doing," she said. "They stay fresh because they're trying to figure something out. In my ninth year of doing this, I'm trying to keep that excitement."
Saving on costumes
That partly explains why Lee has written the "Untitled Feminist Multimedia Technology Show," a play without words that is performed in the nude. Premiering Thursday in Minneapolis, it uses music and dance. It is a feminist piece that is premised on seduction, not lecturing, she said.
"I went to a show of these Irving Penn photos and by the time I walked out of the exhibit, I had this burning desire to be this thin white society lady from the '60s just because of the power of those images," she said. "What that told me was that I could put images of people up there who are so powerful you want to be that."
Besides, she added, her cast consists of charismatic downtown New York artists such as Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo), Regina Rocke and World Famous *BOB*.
"I tried a version of the show where I was getting into all the stuff that's wrong with the world, but we sort of know what the problems are," said Lee. "People know that the female body comes with a lot of assumptions, like she doesn't deserve to be paid as much or she's not valuable as a person so her needs don't matter as much. The heart of the show is not the question 'Does sexism exist?' but what would it look like if sexism didn't exist? In this case, the performers embody a multiplicity of charismatic, free, glorious things."
"What would the world be like if a straight guy could dance around with a parasol and not be judged?" she asked. "What would it be like if a woman was not devalued because she has breasts and a vagina?"