White Rabbit is a highly original piece of theater by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who, when he wrote it in 2010, was unable to leave Iran. Soleimanpour is fascinated by experimentation: His second play, Blind Hamlet, has no performers, only an on-stage recorder and participating audience members. He himself is emphatic about the lack of politics in White Rabbit. “Sometimes people just say, ‘This is a linear story of a poor person who lives in Iran and his situation.’ I’m like, oh my God, that’s not what we’re talking about,” he told the Guardian three years ago. Yet a prominent theme is that the voice of the playwright, liberated from place and time, has been brought to us through the presence of a single actor.
The basic concept of this seventy-minute piece is unique: The actor does not read the script until it is handed over in a manila envelope at the beginning of the performance. Since no actor can repeat under this format, the play has a new — and equally challenged and unprepared — speaker every night. For the 21 Denver performances, Pipedream tapped many of our most talented and interesting theater artists, including Adrian Egolf, Luke Sorge and Mare Trevathan — and I love the implicit and justified comparison to the starry names who undertook Rabbit elsewhere: Juliet Stevenson and Tamsin Greig in London; Nathan Lane and Cynthia Nixon in New York. On the night I attended, the brilliant Emma Messenger did the honors. Clearly, the tone of the evening changes with each performer, becoming bullying or pleading, farcical or tragic. Messenger is a warm, intelligent presence, though occasionally there’s a hint of reproachful threat in her eyes.
White Rabbit makes for a vibrant experience for several reasons. First of all, there’s the actor’s unrehearsed reaction to each twist or turn of logic or narrative — she reads the script, looks back up at us, and there’s that tension: Do I want to say this or don’t I, she seems to be thinking. The audience reaction, too, is fluid and unpredictable, and goes far beyond what we usually call participation: It’s essential to the meaning and effect of the performance. Periodically, an audience member is instructed to act out a bit of the story or even provide a prop. Ours was a smart, lively and often uninhibited crowd, and reactions were alternately shy or show-offy, cheerful or serious. All this means that Soleimanpour’s voice gets amplified and re-amplified, changed and modified by everyone in the room.
There’s no linear story. The narrative is absurdist, ridiculous, sometimes surreal, often funny. But then it gets darker and riskier, and eventually a plot twist arises that seems to involve real danger to the performer. We all know that the danger can’t be actual, since there’s no way Pipedream could get away with killing so many of our finest actors. But given the way reality and fiction keep intertwining in the dense web between actor, audience members and that unseen — and clearly highly manipulative — playwright, you can’t help feeling a shiver of unease. What will we all do if the actor is actually in danger, since we’ve been complicit in the action so far? Just watch? Try to save her? At one performance in another city, an audience member leapt onto the stage at this moment to intervene. Our audience was less impetuous, but we did make a concerted, though less dramatic, attempt to avert disaster. Since one of the play’s overriding themes is obedience, I rejoiced in our disobedient response.
Of course, the idea of obedience to authority is political. And so is this evocative line about writing from the play: “It tastes like freedom. It needs no passport.”
White Rabbit Red Rabbit, presented by Pipedream Productions through September 11, University of Denver JMAC Studios Black Box, 1903 East Iliff Avenue, 303-871-7720, whatiswhiterabbitredrabbit.com.