Review: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

Near the beginning of the Elbow Theatre production of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, playwright Nassim Soleimanpour announces that, for him, this is not so much a play as an experiment. For the opening night, he’s speaking through a proxy, an actor named Carmen Aguirre who is reading the script for the first time. His words arrived in her hands in a sealed envelope onstage and she must do the best she can with them in the moment in front of the audience.

Soleimanpour is speaking from Iran because he cannot leave. Having refused to do military service, he cannot attain a passport and so he must reach out to the world through his words. He sees White Rabbit as a way to travel across the world and through time. He can be every place the play is performed without ever leaving the sour orange trees of his home in Shiraz.

Assuming we trust that he or she has never read the play (a possibility that is left open for us by Soleimanpour himself), the performer must find the spontaneity a terrifying idea, made doubly so by the narrator’s playful voice and parabolic stories that shift from funny to poignant with little warning. This isn’t straight comedy or a particularly complex kind of improv. Ham would do the poetry of Souleimanpour’s script a disservice but too much gravity would hide its sparkle.

Aguirre, who is also known as the author of Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, which won CBC Canada Reads this year, keeps up admirably. She catches the punch lines of the jokes mostly a beat before the audience. Then the writer throws her a self-reflexive curveball and the play becomes about something else entirely. But the nature of that revelation is best experienced live.

Over the run at the Cultch there will be 13 different performers tackling the role of intermediary. The cast ranges wildly in background, experience and style, from theatre maven Kathryn Shaw to comedian Ryan Beil. Because (again, presumably) none of them know what to expect from the script, each one should bring new colour to the work. You could see every night of the play and it would be entirely different each time.

Unfortunately, it’s also the kind of play that works best if everyone involved is looking at it for the first time, making it a work with an expiry date. Would it have the same impact if the actor had read it ahead and rehearsed? How long will people be able to stay in the dark?

Aside from being entertaining, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is an engaging commentary on how we construct meaning, on the collaboration between playwright, performer and audience. At every performance there is an empty seat reserved in the front for Soleimanpour himself, which not only commemorates his necessary absence, but also speaks to the ways that the results of our actions travel through time ahead of us, often long after we’re gone.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

Where: The Cultch

When: Until September 30

Read it in the Vancouver Sun