When young Iranian Nassim Soleimanpour, who had been teaching set design at the University of Tehran, was summoned for compulsory military service, he declared himself a conscientious objector. In Iran under the harsh boot of the mullahs, that was not the wisest decision. Graced with plain dumb good luck, Soleimanpour was not imprisoned or tortured for his deeply held obstinacy. The authorities slapped him softly by rescinding his passport and therefore forbade him travel. Since his family were well-known writers in Iran, where poetry is revered, their social status may have saved his life. But in his confinement, he found his career.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit, now playing virtually via 4th Wall Theatre Company through May 2, is his quirky, disquieting novice play. Since he was forbidden any performances in his native country, he looked at a map of the world and encircled Iran in red Sharpie. In an interview from a few years ago, he said, “OK, this is where I cannot perform this play. Then I looked at the whole map. OK, but this is where I can perform. I was a man who doesn’t exist. I was a young playwright writing at home who thought, ‘I have a message,’ and so I put it in a bottle and gave it to the ocean.”
His fresh and surprising bottle landed on countless shores. After its double premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Toronto's SummerWorks Festival in 2011, Rabbit literally bounced around the world. The theater equivalent to the Energizer Bunny.
By recent calculations, Rabbit has played more than 3,000 times and been translated into 30 languages. A-list actors have leapt at the chance to perform it once, be they in Beijing, Brisbane, Vienna, Paris, Oslo, New York. Rabbit is a certifiable smash.
Part of Rabbit's allure is Soleimanpour's crafty gimmick. He demands strict requirements to perform this work. A different actor for each performance. The actor chosen must know nothing about the play – no googling, reading reviews, talking to others who have seen it. The actor receives the script on stage inside a sealed envelope the moment the play begins. He reads it raw, without rehearsal or director to guide him. There is no set other than a table with two glasses of water, a capped vial that may or may not contain poison, and, sometimes, a ladder. Whatever happens, happens. In a wondrous way, this is the essence of live theater: immediate, simultaneously intra-and-interpersonal, filled with a beguiling tension, and very much alive in the moment.
In the beginning of its universal run, an empty seat was reserved for the absent playwright. That particular edict didn't last long. In a stroke of grand irony, Soleimanpour, near the end of his confinement, failed an eye test which rendered him unable to serve in the military anyway. In 2013, he was set free to roam the world with his play.
The work abounds with magic realism, a hint of Orwell's Animal Farm, a tinge of wayward Aesop, audience participation (mercifully brief), sly humor, and dark foreboding. An allegory in part, it makes reference to authoritarianism, frightful surveillance practice, and the numbing conformity of repression and the terror it engenders in a powerless populace. It's all there beneath the cuddly fur. We dutifully oblige whatever the Actor asks of us. As he states with conviction, It's the rule of the circus.
Although Soleimanpour demands nothing from the critics, I nonetheless bow to his subliminal wishes. There will be no spoilers in this review. Like the Actor, the play deserves to be experienced fresh, without comment, unsullied. Adapted by the author for virtual presentation in this time of COVID, Rabbit loses a bit of its communal spirit as we, in our circumscribed boxes, can only respond vicariously to the tale our narrator spins. We're not really there. We, too, become absent. It seems a slight detour on the journey he wants us to take with him, but it lessens the play's visceral impact. Yet it's still a unique, disturbing, and weirdly funny time in the theater.
I saw two performances, or one and a half, really. My Zoom conked out halfway through Philip Lehl's Thursday opening night, so I watched Wallis Sparks' Friday. The two actors were thoroughly different, as was the play, but both equally mesmerizing. Lehl started out saying he was nervous as a cat, and he imbued the Actor with a wistful quality of tentativeness, almost like he was homesick. Now we know Lehl as a consummate performer who could read the Betty Crocker Cookbook and draw Shakespearean depths out of it, so he quickly warmed to the task as 70-minute show progressed. He was getting to what you might call the Big Reveal and plunging away headfirst when my computer froze. When it recovered, the play had about 20 seconds remaining. We were told to go home. Shut off your computers and leave. It was disheartening.
Willis Sparks, a fellow Juilliard Group #19 classmate of Lehl's (as are all the other performers), is both actor (Die Hard: With a Vengeance) and corporate speaker on geopolitical risk management. He was a quietly commanding presence, and when he, as Actor, asked us to do something, we did it without thought. Though unlike the previous night, the audience wasn't asked our advice whether he should drink one of the glasses of water, one of which might contain poison. It was an odd omission. Not that it would have made any difference, I found out. Soleimanpour has arranged everything just so, contrived by a master builder.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit might just be the most famous play “no one knows anything about.” Go be confronted by its experimentation and witness an exciting new playwright come into his own. Just don't tell anyone.
Here is the subsequent cast:
Laura Linney, Saturday, April 24, 7:30 p.m.
Lisa Arrindell, Sunday, April 25, 3 p.m.
John Gremillion, Thursday, April 29, 7:30 p.m.
Laura Tietjen, Friday, April 30, 7:30 p.m.
Kurt Naebig, Saturday, May 1, 7:30 p.m.
Jake Weber, Sunday, May 2, 3 p.m.
David Kriegel, Sunday, May 2, 7:30 p.m.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit. For tickets and code for Zoom entrance, visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $30-$50.
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