White Rabbit, Red Rabbit speaks to conformist pressures everywhere
By Nassim Soleimanpour. An Elbow Theatre Society production, presented by the Cultch. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Wednesday, September 19. Continues until September 30
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit: stimulating rabbit, obvious rabbit.
Performances of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit are always cold readings. The actors who take it on have never seen the script before and their lack of rehearsal emphasizes their status as conduits of the author’s voice. Through the intermediary of the solo player (a different actor every night), the playwright, writing in 2010, speaks to the audience—and directs the evening.
Soleimanpour tells us stories. Many of them use absurdity to explore the experiences of his Iranian generation, which grew up under an authoritarian regime but has tantalizing access to the outside world through the Internet. He tells us about the red rabbit who must cover her ears when she goes to the theatre or risk being called unchaste. And, in that fable, animals assume false identities: “Nobody really is an ostrich.”
Soleimanpour’s metaphorical reach extends beyond Iran, of course. A tale about white rabbits who savage any red rabbit that shows initiative speaks to culturally engrained conformist pressures everywhere; I couldn’t help but think about Christian fundamentalism.
And there’s a meta-metaphor at work: Soleimanpour uses the compliance of theatre to explore obedience. Having directed his actor to get a “volunteer” from the audience to play the role of a bear, he thanks the bear for her obligatory participation.
The playwright’s absence is the evening’s most potent element. Because of politics, Soleimanpour can’t leave Iran. There’s an empty seat with his name on it in the front row. He asks audience members to write to him at email@example.com. This is about cultural isolation, but it’s also about individual loneliness, which may be the most fundamental theme in the theatre.
Soleimanpour’s conception of this evening is sophisticated, and his audacious attempt to travel—to converse with us through the voices of foreign actors—is moving. As I watched the performance, that dynamic became familiar, however, and I experienced diminishing rewards. Many of the political metaphors are both obvious and overexplained. And the supposedly climactic passage, in which the actor must choose whether or not to drink from a glass that may be poisoned, falls flat. It’s obviously false; we know she’s not going to die.
There is an unsettling seed there, though: the idea that small moments of dishonesty—perhaps even in letting an actor take an infinitesimal risk—can add up to a lifetime of dishonesty, which itself is a kind of suicide.
The stellar lineup of actors that’s booked for this run includes Meg Roe, Jonathon Young, and James Long. On opening night, Carmen Aguirre’s reading of the script was perfection. She didn’t act. She stayed clear. She was the conduit.