Exploring indefinable boundaries

BEIRUT: There are times when ascertaining where one thing ends and another begins is simple. Where a plate meets a table, for example, there is a clear line of demarcation.

When it comes to less tangible qualities – light and dark, say, or love and hate – the boundary between the two is harder to define. Exploring frontiers is the driving force behind “Rapid Eye Movement,” a solo performance by Lebanese actor Mounzer Baalbaki. Recognized for his roles in such films as Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel,” 2007, and Houaida Azar’s “Beirut Express,” 2010, he’s been rather more active on the theater scene, where he’s appeared in multiple performances.

“Rapid Eye Movement,” the most recent of these, ran last December for three nights at Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace. It is Baalbaki’s solo debut, written and performed entirely by the actor. Those who missed – or wish to revisit – the show will have a chance to do so later this week when Baalbaki revives the piece at the former Masrah al-Madina in Clemenceau.

Named for the phase of sleep in which most people experience their most vivid dreams, “Rapid Eye Movement” consists of three separate elements – a recorded text, a slide show of images and the still presence of the performer himself.

Baalbaki’s text, a narrated series of short stories, encounters and anecdotes that flow loosely together like facets of a dream, opens with a sentence spoken live by the actor, who stands against the wall on a small platform, a shelf barely large enough for his two feet. For the remainder of the 30-minute performance, the text is played from a recording, while Baalbaki stands frozen on his perch.

“This platform is the thin red line between sleep and waking,” the actor explains, “death and life, real and imagined, strange and stranger – like everything here in the world. ... I am standing there and it’s my voice but it’s not my voice at the same time. I’m here, I say something and afterwards I am just someone standing – I’m present and not present.”

The audiovisual aspect to the performance – which Baalbaki likens to a silent film – is the series of slides projected upon the wall and atop Baalbaki’s static form.

“I’m talking about dreams,” says Baalbaki, “and the performance comes only from the slide machine. Every change of slide is like the blinking of an eye.”

The projections, the work of one of the artist’s Beirut collaborators, Baalbaki says, range from colorful abstract drawings to written phrases, creating a counterpoint between the changing images and his still form that echoes the relationship between a dreamer and his dream.

“When someone is dreaming, he hears his voice and the voices of others,” he says, “but if we look at him he is not speaking, he is not moving.”

Baalbaki is fascinated by the fluidity of dreams, in which any number of unrelated concepts and stories can coalesce and the strangest, most surreal occurrences become mundane. Taking his inspiration not from his own dreams, but from the often dreamlike realities of the world around him, Baalbaki explores the concept of boundaries in everyday life through his text, which reflects a measure of irony about life and its absurdities.

The actor has been developing the performance for around two years, but emphasizes that the subject of his work has long been of interest, part of a chain that stretches back “to the beginning.”

His working process is very much one of fits and starts, he explains, with long periods of reflection followed by feverish bursts of creativity.

“One time I was at home working on this performance and it was about one in the morning and I had an old script with me,” he laughs. “I went to the bathroom and flipped it over and began to write and suddenly realized that an hour and a half had passed and I was still in the bathroom writing.”

The old Masrah al-Madina – erstwhile home to Nidal Ashkar’s theater institution before it moved to Hamra Street’s Saroulla Building – no longer resembles a theater. Baalbaki believes the space will add an important dimension to the performance. All audience members, he says, have their associations, stories and experiences with this venue, their own emotional baggage and memories that will be projected onto his performance, just as the slides are projected onto the performer’s inert form.

“It’s always focused on the line between one thing and another. That’s its poetry,” he explains. “Between the character and the self, people and individuals, ... it’s the extremely thin boundary between one thing and another. Not necessarily opposite things – in the relationship between two people or two groups, for example. ... It’s fixed, but not fixed – fixed in form, but not in place.”

This conceptual approach is mirrored in the presentation of the visual material. Baalbaki has rigged the slide projector to move slightly from side to side, causing the changing source of light to create an optical illusion, in which the actor’s still form appears to be moving. Like the elusive boundaries he explores, Baalbaki’s figure becomes erratic, impossible to pin down.

Mounzer Baalbaki’s “Rapid Eye Movement” will be staged in Arabic (with English subtitles) at the old Masrah al-Madina in Clemenceau from April 18-20. For more information please call 03-628-226.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 18, 2013, on page 16.




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