Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a unique theatrical experiment, requiring that a different actor perform it every night and that the actor must not see the script prior to reading and performing it on stage. As such, the play serves in some ways as a three-way dialogue between Soleimanpour, the actor and the audience, featuring a serious of metatextual games that grow increasingly serious, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
At its core, “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is a kind of theatrical version of the infamous Milgram Experiment: It asks both actor and audience how much they’re willing to obey words on a page created years in the past by a writer half a world away. Because of this focus, though, it is equally about spontaneity; each production will be different from the last, as will each individual performance. Depending upon how it is staged, formatted, advertised and so forth, different producers can create entirely unique atmospheres surrounding a production of the play, ranging from the darkly serious to the ebulliently comedic.
Ground Floor Theatre’s new production of the text veers more towards the latter, with a who’s who of Austin performing arts talent taking on the main role (see the group’s website for details on who is performing each night). By presenting a 10-minute stand-up comedy act as an opener for the play, the Ground Floor Theatre producers create an atmosphere that undercuts some of the darker suspense of the performance, which has the effect of allowing the focus to fall instead on the issues of identity hiding behind the questions of obedience.
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” constantly questions the very meaning of the words “me” and “I,” as the actor performing the role is giving direct voice to Soleimanpour, who sometimes speaks directly to the actor. This took on special resonance during the wonderful opening night performance by Paul Soileau, in his persona of Rebecca Havemeyer. The question of gender identity — presented as a binary in the text — was met with a shrug and a laugh before a winking acceptance of “girl” as acceptable. Every time the text discussed the unnamed actor performing in a role there was added nuance, likely unintended by the playwright.
This is the great strength of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” — each performance will be unique. It brings together the poetry of scripted theater with the immediacy of improv comedy and asks as much from the audience as it does from the performer. While one evening’s performance may be lacking in suspense and focused more on metatextual, philosophical and linguistic play, another evening might take a much more serious and darker tone, depending upon the particular actor and particular audience.
Because of this, it is difficult to easily sum up “White Rabbit Red Rabbit.” Ground Floor Theatre’s production of the work taps into its inherent instability and spontaneity, creating a unique, one-of-a-kind theatrical experience that lives and dies each time a new actor opens to the first page of the script.
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit”
When: Various times Thursday-Sunday through March 31
Where: 979 Springdale Road, Suite 122
Cost: $25 suggested price