Those in attendance at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary at 10 p.m. on Thursday night witnessed an astonishing feat from a local actor. Blake Hackler, who had just come from performing in Theatre Three's devastating Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, traveled half a mile to the MAC to immediately jump into opening night of another show that concerns an animal in a cage, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.
You don't get many truly unique experiences in the theater anymore, but this one definitely fits that bill.
The play, by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour, is produced by Southern Methodist University student Josh Kumler and SMU alumna Alia Tavakolian, in association with Aurora Nova Productions, for just one weekend. Tavakolian studied with Soleimanpour in Shiraz, Iran, for a year, and then she and Kumler saw the play in London. They knew they had to produce it in Dallas.
After seeing opening night and Hackler's performance, I know why.
If you catch one of the two remaining shows, however, you won't have the same experience. Theater is never the same experience for anyone, of course, but for this show, that's expontentially more true.
The conceit is that a different actor performs it each time. Friday night was SMU theater student Stephen Gardner. Tonight, Saturday, is Nicole Stewart, who runs the hit storytelling series Oral Fixation. And Sunday night is SMU theater grad Brandon Potter, currently playing the Duke of Burgundy in the Dallas Theater Center's King Lear, who will have come from a matinee of that bear of a show, although he'll at least have a few hours to prepare, unlike the mere minutes that Hackler had.
The word "prepare" is used loosely because the 45-minute play has no director, not much of a set (just a few props and set pieces), no lighting design other than "on," and the first time the actor sees the script is when he or she opens it from a sealed envelope just before curtain. So, no rehearsal.
Therefore, the performer could never do it a second time without the spontaneity being compromised.
To explain it fully would be to ruin the experience for future audiences and actors, but it involves the performer reading the script, incorporating whatever movement he or she comes up with at the moment, and using audience members as indicated in the script. (Don't worry, it's painless for the audience.) The title refers to a psychological experiment the writer's uncle conducted with rabbits, which is acted out in the show and becomes a metaphor for the larger picture.
Soleimanpour was forbidden from leaving his native country because Iranian men cannot obtain a passport without two years of military service, and he was a conscientious dissenter. So in confinement he wrote this play, which is being produced all over the world. You could view this script as commentary on having one's voice, especially a dissenting one, silenced. And although in the play we're never sure what the fate of the actual playwright is (the performer's roles include the "playwright" and the "actor"), we know from Soleimanpour's Tweets that he actively promotes productions of his show.
The work breaks down barriers between writer, performer and audience; between art and artifice; strips away concepts of process; and ultimately asks everyone in the theater—performer, audience members—to take a leap of faith. Even the ending isn't traditional.
All the world's a stage, right?
On Thursday, Hackler leapt whole-heartedly, with a performance of boundless energy. It probably helped that many of the theatergoers were SMU students (Hackler is on the theater faculty there) and were as engaged as he was. It may be the best unfiltered lesson in performance they'll see.
The dynamic could of course change depending on the performer and audience, and I regret that I won't be able to see it done again this weekend, but here's hoping the show makes a return, perhaps at a festival.
Whether you feel it's slight or profound, or somehow both of those things and everything in between, it's a performance experience like none other. Get to the MAC for one of the two remaining performances. It's free, and no reservations are required.
The remaining performer schedule is:
- 8 p.m. Feb. 2: Nicole Stewart
- 8 p.m. Feb. 3: Brandon Potter