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 freedom 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," running Jan. 12-14 as part of the monthlong Out There festival at Walker Art Center. It is about graft, corruption and the value of a life in a place that looks like his home country.

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?"

MORE FROM OUT THERE

Chelfitsch/ Toshiki Okada: Okada and his company Chelfitsch are performing a trio of poignant, humorous short plays about disaffected office workers in a Japanese cubicle farm. The way Okada matches banal language with stylized movement and dramatic music by John Cage, Stereolab and John Coltrane is "strange and disturbing," says Bither, "but also oddly funny."

Mariano Pensotti: Argentinian Pensotti will use a rotating stage to follow the lives of four characters over the course of a decade. Pensotti has studied film as well as theater, and his "El Pasado Es un Animal Grotesco (The Past Is a Grotesque Animal)" "has a cinematic quality about it," says Bither. "The turntable conveys a sense of time passing."

Related link

  • Out of body: An all-nude feminist piece by Young Jean Lee kicks off the Walker’s 2012 Out There performance series