Let’s get one thing straight. Walker Art Center is not presenting a “Law and Order”-style police procedural with its latest show in the Out There series. But there is a forensic quality to “Riding on a Cloud,” director Rabih Mroué’s searching and meditative 65-minute one-act that opened Thursday in Minneapolis.
The production is set in motion by acts of devastating violence — the assassination of the director’s grandfather, Hussein Mroué, on the same day that the skull of his brother, Yasser, was shattered by a sniper’s bullet during Lebanon’s protracted civil wars.
In part, the show follows the template of an investigation, although the aim does not seem to be to solve a crime or even to discern motives. Rather, “Cloud” offers testimony about the worth of a life and family caught up in intractable, even incomprehensible killing.
We don’t see the carnage. The multimedia production uses blurred images and still photos that are made to undulate on the screen in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Nor are the projected poetic texts an offertory of the graphically disturbing kind.
What we do get, in both images and text, is a sense of the fragmentation that keeps echoing through a life and family long after the bullets are fired.
We also see Yasser, who miraculously survived a bullet to the head but lost the use of his right side. In fact, scarred and halting, he’s our narrator and guide, a jerky testimony of the stubborn will to live.
Here he is, after numerous operations in Lebanon and Moscow, where he was flown for treatment, finding bits of wry humor and poetry from scraps of a life. Sitting at a table full of CDs and a big, old-style recorder, he sometimes records a phrase, then plays it back — giving us an echo while the real deal sits in front of us.
That metaphor — of reality existing with refractions that one can use to construct the semblance of a new reality — is a theme of the show. Yasser’s recordings of sound, text and video help him to reconstitute himself.
The images that flash onscreen include a family picture: the parents who married when his mother was 14 and his father was 21. There is a teacher evaluation of the 4-year-old Yasser, who is described as bright but stubborn. There are musings, philosophical and poetic, on memory and fiction.
“Cloud” is a wry, tough piece that achieves its heartbreak by simply presenting evidence.
It’s a pity that the conclusion is such a departure from all that precedes it. As the director joins his brother onstage for a little acoustic guitar duet onstage, each providing one hand to play the instrument, the show loses its intellectual rigor and becomes the kind of earnest, folksy thing that you might see on a talent night at your neighborhood coffee house. Still, it tears at the heartstrings, showing the simple pleasure of song and fraternal love.
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