Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, on at the Vancity Culture Lab at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre through the end of the next week, gives new meaning to stage fright--both an actor's and an audience's. The central conceit of this interactive solo show is that it is to be played by a different actor every night. Having received only a few preparatory instructions 48 hours in advance of their performance, the actors each receive a copy of the script for the first time while on stage, and essentially must read it cold, doing everything they are instructed.
That one of the play's instructions involves drinking a glass of water that may or may not contain a deadly poison is just one of the theatrical--and moral--conundrums confronting the actor and audience alike. For White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is, on a very basic level, about the three-way contract established between playwright, actor, and audience in the theatre. As Soleimanpour has his actor state at the very top of the show, this is where all three "meet": "From now on we are all present." Even if, in Soleimanpour's case, he is not physically present. An empty chair in the front row (actually stage left in the Culture Lab's set-up, which for this show has been configured cabaret-style) has nevertheless been reserved for the playwright: to remind us metaphysically of he who has conjured this encounter, but also more materially of the fact that, even if he wanted to, Soleimanpour would not be able to join us, as he is currently without a passport and unable to leave his native Iran, having refused that country's compulsory military service.
And so, Soleimanpour speaks through his actor to us, seeking evidence of our presence at and participation in his show: notes and photos and video documentation that he asks be emailed to him at his gmail account, which he freely provides. And the actor, having begun speaking the playwright's words, cannot stop. She must continue to the end, doing everything the playwright asks, including an ostrich impression, and drinking that potentially fatal glass of water. And we, in the audience, in turn do everything the actor asks of us. Having numbered off at the top of the show, several "obligatory volunteers" are conscripted to enact parts of the scripts, and/or facilitate the actor in her progress through it. This included Richard, who, as number three, was required to play a white rabbit wanting to attend the circus, but who is accosted by a bear (another audience "volunteer") demanding payment. But it's the poor soul who ends up as number five who must empty the vial of "poison" into one of the two glasses of water on stage from which the actor must choose to drink at the end. That the woman who rather reluctantly did this last night was also the only one in the audience who attempted to prevent our actor from making this choice--actually getting up and attempting to remove the glasses--was instructive, if only for her failure to effect a different outcome than the one in Soleimanpour's script: the red rabbit who tries to separate herself from the rest of the warren's dominant white regime will nevertheless be dragged back by that regime (and here I'm referencing a specific allegorical tale that comes from Soleimanpour).
I'm happy to say that Studio 58 Artistic Director Kathryn Shaw, our actor from last night, lived to talk about the experience. But it was one of the most fraught moments in the theatre I've experienced in recent memory when she raised her chosen glass to her lips and drank. While most in the audience--which included many Studio 58 students--likely assumed, as I did, that whatever substance was poured into the glass was benign, there still remained some doubt--not least about our own failure/inability to intervene, and the ethics of witnessing what is in some senses constructed as a ritual sacrifice.
A most thought-provoking play, and one that I look forward to talking about with my ENGL 468W students (who are all required to see and review it in the context of Giorgio Agamben's Homo Sacer).