White Rabbit Red Rabbit — Nassim Soleimanpour’s dark allegory at the Fringe Festival

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[Alaina experiences a one-man show that crosses the fourth wall–and half the Earth–to reach Philadelphia audiences. — the artblog editors]

Philly theatergoers and writers never get bossed around more than during the weeks of the freewheeling Fringe Festival, when they’ll often purchase a ticket before the artists will disclose the venue, and receive strict instructions on when and how to arrive and what to bring.

Reviewers’ directions

actor on stage and audience
David Morse performing in White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Photo by Kevin Monko.

This year’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit, coming to us from Iran while playwright Nassim Soleimanpour cannot, offers its own “Urgent Note for Press” demanding that I not forget Soleimanpour lives in Iran, and also declaring that “this play is NOT overtly political, and should not be portrayed as such.” FringeArts requires that I be “judicious” in my coverage.

The FringeArts playbill for the show paints a brief, benign, and happy picture of the writer and his life, calling him a “multidisciplinary theatre-maker” who’s won awards around the world without leaving home, “and lives happily in Tehran with his wife and new puppy.”

So I guess I should follow their lead and avoid diving into the play’s startlingly dark and intimate allegories. There are stories about rabbits, and a whole heck of a lot more about suicide than you’d expect from someone who’s really living happily anywhere in the world. The playwright tallies 17 different possible forms of suicide, not counting the method that Soleimanpour says everyone in the audience has already chosen for themselves–because simply living your life is the surest guarantee that you’re hurtling, eventually, toward death.

photo of man
Author Nassim Soleimanpour. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the author, vicarious world travel

Soleimanpour’s one-man play does not require an actor so much as an intermediary. Each of the Fringe Fest’s 13 performances will be given by an actor who pulls the script out of a big envelope right on stage and proceeds to read it for the very first time.

We learn why Soleimanpour can’t leave Iran–having refused two years of military service, he can’t obtain a passport.

But White Rabbit Red Rabbit creates a space where actor, writer, and audience meet in a way they may never have before. “Now we are all present,” Soleimanpour says.

“This is not so much a play as an experiment,” the writer adds through the mouth of a new actor every night. We’re living in different times: He’s writing in 2010 at age 29 at the same time we’re hearing his words in 2014 (“the past makes the future and the future makes the past”). He gives his email address and invites everyone to write to him: “I promise to answer if I am alive.”

Soleimanpour says “it tastes like freedom” to know that people are hearing his play all over the world, but we, the audience, “live in my future, and this gives you authority over me.”

Will the audience follow the play’s surprisingly interactive demands: To count themselves, hand over some cash, lend an object, hop on the stage, take a picture, take notes, or perhaps even take over for the actor? Why or why not?

The show opened with a special performance on Sept. 6 featuring TV, movie, and Broadway star David Morse. I caught the show for artblog the next night, when People’s Light and Theatre Company resident ensemble member Leonard Haas did the honors. Nick Stuccio, FringeArts’ producing director, was on hand September 7 as well, after catching Morse’s performance the night before.

stuffed animal white rabbit
Bunny. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Stuccio told me that Morse, a Philly native, agreed to do the show after Stuccio met him personally and asked if he’d like to be involved. But Stuccio was surprised to find out that performing White Rabbit Red Rabbit made the stage and screen veteran extremely nervous: His hands were shaking backstage.

On Sunday night when I saw Rabbit, Haas, carrying a bottle of water and wearing jeans and a blue-checked button-down shirt, was a low-key conduit for the Iranian writer’s stories and games. Occasionally, his voice got so low and casual that it was lost for a few words here and there as he read, but the script’s lucid twists on time and space kept the chairs creaking as audience members leaned forward in their seats, eager to participate, or just to listen.

I won’t tell you anything more about the journey Soleimanpour offers–just that you’re expressly forbidden to touch the actor or check his or her health on your way out of the theater.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit runs through Sept. 21 at the Christ Church Neighborhood House Theater, 20 N. American Street, and at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard. For details, including performers, locations for each show, and the full schedule, check the website or call 215-413-1318.

Tags

2014 philadelphia fringe festival, alaina mabaso, iran, nassim soleimanpour, performance, white rabbit red rabbit

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