Fort Worth — Young Iranian-born Nassim Soleimanpour (so-lay-mon-POOR) couldn’t get a passport…so he sent his words instead. And on a cool spring evening on the other side of the world we heard his voice, alive and true, whimsical and yearning, in White Rabbit Red Rabbit—the play he sent out into the world from his home in Shiraz, an ancient city famous for its poets and gardens.
Like caged birds everywhere, Soleimanpour was looking for a way to sing.
Presented by Amphibian Stage Productions with Aurora Nova Productions and Boat Rocker Entertainment, Rabbit now has been performed more than 1,000 times around the world before audiences who speak 20 or more languages. “It tastes like freedom,” the playwright tells us, to know his words will reach people in places (and even future times) he might never see for himself. “Who knows if I’ll even be alive then?” he asks us.
What’s it like? I can’t tell you, exactly—because what “my” audience experienced on the first of this five-night run of performances won’t ever happen quite the same way again. Each night, White Rabbit is performed by a different actor who has never seen or read the play. The script is taken out of a sealed envelope onstage, and the play begins. The actor can never perform it again.
That may sound like a gimmick, but it’s what makes Rabbit succeed as a meta-theatrical experiment, a “happening” that engages the audience precisely because it can’t be repeated. We are there, on this night, watching this actor onstage. We are players and participants, too (some of us more than others!) helping to create—again, for this night only—what feels like a living, humming word bridge that spans the thousands of miles, not to mention the cultural and geopolitical distance, between the playwright and us.
At our first-night performance at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, actor Xander Berkeley (Gregory on The Walking Dead) took on the challenge, dedicating his performance to the late actor Bill Paxton, a Fort Worth “hometown boy.” Wry and funny and impressively calm, considering, he strolled on in a gray fedora and a pair of shades that became recurring props as the evening progressed. Berkeley’s wife, actress Sarah Clarke ( 24, Twilight) performs on March 23, also at the Modern; actor/curator Christopher Blay picks it up on March 24 at Amphibian’s Main Street theater, with singer-songwriter Cameron Smith of the band War Party on March 25 and actress Christie Vela on March 26.
And on this night, these things happened: money changed hands, a bright scarf went flying from the audience to the stage, a bear had a pony tail, and a cell phone impersonated a vegetable. See what I mean? To know what happens on your night, you’ll have to be there.
Soleimanpour’s declaration of (artistic) independence isn’t solemn: it’s funny and quirky, dark but never despairing. He bounces from topic to topic with the cheerful randomness of (dare I say it) the Millennials we know and love in our own corner of the planet. He is irreverent, but wary. His world is a circus, he says, and he must be careful. There are rules—though in speaking freely to us, he must be breaking some of them. In short bursts of thought, he muses on personal freedom, on obedience and conformity, on ways to live and ways to die, and on the soul-draining effects of a limited supply of…life. Not just on rabbits crowded in a pen—but on people, too.
To make sure we know just how crucial each of us is to the play, the house lights are up throughout the performance, and Soleimanpour instructs the actor to begin by having us count off, one by one. On this night, I am Number 15 of 182 people in the theater.
“Did you count me?” asks the playwright. There is an empty seat, front row center, waiting for him.
Animals abound—threatening crows, put-upon rabbits, overbearing bears. And again, we are involved in the process as an audience, kept alert by a writer who doesn’t try to nail down the parallels between humans and animal “types”—but gives us plenty to think about.
The script also leaves us room to ponder the actor’s eventual fate—happy or un? Of course, we know death is “the” inevitable end…though perhaps not tonight.
But of the things we know for sure, one is this: We know that Nassim Soleimanpour’s life changed after White Rabbit premiered at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. After several years, the Iranian government gave him a passport that allowed him to travel the world. He has led workshops and panels for various productions, and it was performed off-Broadway in 2016, with actors such as Nathan Lane, Patrick Wilson and Whoopi Goldberg. (Does Soleimanpour sit in the empty chair or keep out of the theater during performances, we wonder?) And he continues to write new plays—now from a home base in Germany.
Locally, the show has been done by Southern Methodist University students at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, and will also be done by Dallas Theater Center in 2018. Amphibian's production is the Fort Worth premiere.
Performances of White Rabbit Red Rabbit continue through Saturday. For details, go to: www.amphibianstage.org