Spoiler Alert: Don't Read This If You Have Not Seen White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, but might. If you didn’t see the Yale Cabaret’s production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit last weekend, that’s too bad. But if you did see it, what did you see?
Each performance was different because it required a different main volunteer (The Actor) to open an envelope and read the script inside, and involved different audience participants. You may have seen (as I did) directing student Sarah Holdren as The Actor, or Monique Bernadette Barbee, John-Michael Marrs, Hugh Farrell, Gabriel Levey or Brian MacInnis Smallwood. This person has to enact what the script demands—including playing a cheetah imitating an ostrich—as well as “direct” audience members who, among other things, enact a white rabbit encountering a bear, or maybe it’s a would-be spectator encountering security, or maybe it’s a would-be free agent encountering an agent of the state. At another point, volunteers play a group of white rabbits doused with ice water while one, and only one, gets to become the red rabbit by grabbing the carrot at the top of a ladder—only to be verbally trashed by The Actor as The Playwright.
As we’re constantly reminded, everything The Actor is told to say and do comes by virtue of The Playwright—and not the playwright in some generalized sense (all scripts originate with a playwright, etc.), but in the very specific sense of Nassim Soleimanpour (who tells you to look him up on facebook and to send him comments at an email address a note-taker is asked to note). And Soleimanpour, as the absent presence in his play, needles us and nudges us and banters with us, all the while insisting that he can only have any effect upon us via theater—he lives in Iran and can’t leave his homeland, so theater becomes his vicarious form of travel. And where does he travel to? Why, to our free society, of course, only to impose upon his audience and his volunteers as much as his autocratic imagination can devise, while undermining that relation as much as possible. We, the audience, have to decide how much we’ll go along with. We’re free to leave or intervene, or to refuse his commands.
If there’s a gun on stage it has to go off by the end of the play, Chekhov said, more or less. So if there’s a vial of some substance or other mixed into a glass of water, someone’s going to have to drink it, or at least decide which of two glasses to drink.
Lest we think this is all just a variant on the trust-fall game, we hear of an experiment: Soleimanpour tells us of his uncle’s work with rabbits, how dousing them with water because they aren’t red, or because they didn’t get the carrot, or climb the ladder first, or whatever it is rabbits think they’re getting collectively doused for, makes them attack the rabbit who has been sprayed red and not doused after climbing the ladder and grabbing the carrot. Uncle keeps this up and sooner or later any rabbit who climbs the ladder, whether he gets a carrot or gets sprayed red or not, gets attacked, even by later rabbits who never saw a carrot nor got doused. See how rabbits form habits? Isn’t politely watching a spectacle a habit? What kind of rabbit are you? Who do you want to attack? The hapless playwright? Or maybe his surrogate—The Actor. Fine. Let’s have a sacrifice.
Catharsis is when we collectively accept suffering for our sake: The hero of tragedy, Christ on the cross, and so on. Though either glass of water may or may not contain some form of poison, The Actor is told—by an audience volunteer who reads the end of the script—to drink one. Is this psychic distress for our benefit in some way? How implicated do we feel? At the show I saw (Thursday night), some members of the audience told The Actor not to drink, someone even suggested overturning the glasses. Proactive intervention—save The Actor from the play! You don’t have to risk death for our sakes, we’re satisfied.
I’m assuming The Actor drank in each performance. Sarah Holdren ad-libbed “for the good of the play” before drinking the glass right down, and you wanted to hug her for it. It’s for the play, bravo. Let’s keep us out of this. And yet we’re all implicated, Soleimanpour is insisting: it’s not him doing this, finally. And so we should feel something for this puppet in the play, shouldn’t we?
Perhaps, but context is contingent. The Cab show was sponsored by Director of Theater Safety Bill Reynolds and his wife, and if you think any YSD student is going to drink rat poison “for the good of the play” on Bill’s watch, guess again. Which is a way of saying that, while I can imagine stagings of the play where I might suspend my disbelief, I don’t know where that might be. Maybe only in Soleimanpour’s imagination—but his planting the possibility in my imagination is, I guess, enough of a point.
The best thing the play has going for it is that Soleimanpour has found a neat staging of his situation: in writing the play and putting his name to it, he doesn’t know what will happen to him. In volunteering to be in the play, The Actor doesn’t know what will happen either. Because of polite conventions in the “free world,” probably nothing bad (the clean glass). But there are exceptions—ask Salman Rushdie, ask the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members who had nothing to do with a crappy film defaming Mohammad that happened to surface on their watch. Soleimanpour makes theater. It might prove fatal (the poisoned glass).
How far can we trust polite conventions? When does disbelief become fatal? Who would take a bullet for an illusion? Do we always have a choice?
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit By Nassim Soleimanpour Produced by Nicole Bromley, Tanya Dean Consulting Director: Katherine McGerr Set Designer: Carmen M. Martinez Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda Dramaturgy: Daniel Brooks and Ross Manson
Yale Cabaret Oct. 18-20, 2012