An audience of exactly 64–we counted–packed tight in a dark room. Two glasses of water and a vial of “poison” on a glass-topped table. One actor, who had never seen the script before it was handed to him onstage by an audience member. And one playwright, thousands of miles away but still present, authoritative and sometimes clairvoyant.
Written by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour and first performed in 2011, “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” has been translated into several languages and performed by well-known actors in front of receptive international audiences. However, due to his refusal to complete mandatory military service, Soleimanpour was initially denied a passport and didn’t see his own play until 2013, when due to a medical exemption, he was able to obtain a passport and see his play in London.
Presented by Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF) and Urbanite Theatre, located in downtown Sarasota, the play includes a diverse cast of actors and is performed by a different one each night, with no repeat performances, no director, no rehearsals and no reading of the script beforehand. When the actor of the night steps on stage, an audience member hands them an envelope which contains the play.
In a phone interview, Summer Dawn Wallace, co-artistic director of Urbanite Theatre and performer in one of the RIAF White Rabbit Red Rabbit shows, discussed what she could without spoiling the experience for the uninitiated.
“But now I’ve seen several different actors do the piece and what’s so amazing about it is that every night is different,” Wallace said of the show. “It’s the same script but a different actor.”
“There’s always that fear that you’re going to be boring or you’re going to make a mistake,” she said of her experience performing. “Once you get started you realize that the mistakes are just kind of part of it. So it was thrilling and fun and terrifying all at the same time. I don’t know if I ever need to do that again.”
Up for the challenge at Urbanite on Wednesday, Nov. 8, was J. Elijah Cho, who flew from Los Angeles to Tampa for the show. In a phone interview, Cho explained how he heard about the role.
“I’m one of those weird actors that doesn’t mind cold readings,” Cho said. “I actually kind of like cold readings.”
“Brendan [Ragan, Co-Artistic Director of Urbanite Theatre] said, ‘I have the mother of all cold read opportunities. It’s called White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Don’t look up too much about it,’” Cho said. “And I was like, ‘okay.’”
Even for someone who enjoys cold readings, there was still some anxiety.
“I didn’t want to let Brendan down or the writer down,” Cho said. “Going in, I thought it was a trust experiment, where I think, ‘okay, I’m trusting Brendan, I’m trusting Nassim,’ and I’m like, ‘okay hopefully they’ll take care of me,’ and then as the time got closer and I was getting ready to go out I was like, ‘oh, this trust works both ways, because they’re kind of trusting me to do the piece justice.’”
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” blurs the line between actor and spectator, playing with themes of temporality, restriction and obedience. Within the opening page, the writer asserts his metafictive presence over the lone actor and audience, developing a powerful, persuasive voice.
At the writer’s request, the audience counts off one by one, starting with the front row. Sixty-four of us sit in darkened seats, nearly filling the theatre. Then, as one might have anticipated for a play that requested audience participation before it even started, the script calls a particular audience member to aid Cho in his narration.
Number three stands up, a dark-haired girl in a green sweater. Onstage, she begins to imitate a rabbit, wrinkling her nose and hopping around. From my front row seat, I admire her ability to thrive when thrust into an unexpected environment.
What next? The script demands a bear. Audience member number nine is called to the stage, and this time, it’s me. Yours truly, the reporter.
Onstage, number three and I impersonate the white rabbit and the bear respectively. The story progresses with Cho’s narration and shenanigans escalate until we and Cho are hopping around the stage imitating bears imitating rabbits imitating cheetahs imitating ostriches.
This is one humorous moment among many, serving to both lighten and illuminate, as the piece touches on darker themes of restriction and control. The audience and actor fall into traps laid by Soleimanpour, be it tricks of probability or psychology, and find themselves along a decided path by the writer. Here, words on a page have power.
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” reorganizes the often strict divisions between artist and spectator, playing with theatrical form in a way that supports the theme and amuses viewers. At the same time, it closes the space between a once-immobilized playwright and the world. The work may be about time, obedience, censorship or the power of words, using mixed metaphors to achieve a complicated end.
“At a point [Soleimanpour] refers to the piece as a gun…” Cho said. “Kind of like creating something that you’re not sure what it’s going to do, and to me, I think that to me that’s a very interesting concept because I think that words carry and we’re seeing the impact of free speech right now in the United States and of being open to hearing all sorts of trains of thought and ideologies. If more people were to think of the things they say as a gun I think that maybe there would be more responsibility.
“So many people, like politicians, religious figures, artists–their words carry weight and I just wish more people would be like, ‘okay, you’re putting it out there but do you know what people are going to do with it?’
“It’s a weird sort of power that people don’t really take responsibility for–words.”