This week, Theater Alliance debuted its production of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at the Anacostia Playhouse, performed by Jennifer Mendenhall, but I’m afraid you can’t see it. At least, not the way we saw it.
Let me explain. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is an original work from Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. His work delves into the nature of censorship, power and blind trust, as well as the connections between people sitting worlds apart. The title comes from a story Soleimanpour tells of an uncle who experimented with rabbits – four white, one red – and what happened when a system of reward and punishment was applied to them. This experiment serves as a metaphorical framework for the show, which implores the audience to ask: are we any different than the rabbits?
Interestingly, the work is performed with no direction, a minimal set and different performer every night. The script is delivered to the actor in a sealed envelope as they take the stage, and the audience gets to watch her trepidation with delight as she tears it open for the first time. That also means each performance is unique in its delivery with opportunities for each actor to take it in their own direction.
Soleimanpour inserts himself into nearly every scene, firmly planting his presence in the room. The result is that White Rabbit reads at times like a letter to a pen-pal, with the author offering personal details about everything from his blood type to his body hair. If he doesn’t answer all the questions you may have about him or his life by the time it’s done, the author invites you to email him and ask him anything. Seriously, he gives his email to the audience (though you won’t get it from me. You’ll have to buy a ticket).
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is full of humor, with none of the heaviness one might expect from a work devoted to serious social examination. For his part, Soleimanpour is surprisingly colloquial for someone whose first language isn’t English. He isn’t afraid to drop an “OMG” where appropriate or rely on some well-placed profanity to make a point. Mendelhall delivers the humor with charm and grace, drawing laughs throughout.
That’s not to say the work is silly or freewheeling. To the contrary, Soleimanpour’s work is all about control and power. Specifically, how much power a playwright sitting in Iran can exert over an audience in Washington, D.C. The answer is: quite a lot. And he gets to this part pretty darn quickly.
This is where I should note that audience participation is a function of the play. If the house is full, your odds of being left mostly alone are pretty good, but at a bare minimum expect the playwright to require some active listening and call-backs from the audience. If that makes your skin crawl, you’ve been warned.
If not, prepare to be challenged. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit asks the audience to think hard about the choices we make and how we respond to one another. According to Soleimanpour we are all unknowingly conditioned by outside controls and shared history in a way that instills false trust and bad behavior. If you don’t believe him, Soleimanpour is prepared to test his theory with an experiment involving two glasses of water. It’s a good one, I promise.
This is, of course, all possible through the work of Soleimanpour’s lone thespian on stage. For us that person was local actress Jennifer Mendelhall. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit asks a lot of its actor, and Mendelhall delivered. Part ringmaster, part lion (or cheetah, as it were), Mendelhall does a good job of driving the show even as she’s subjected to its effects. She invites sympathy as she flips through the pages of her script for the first time but there’s no doubt she’s in-control of the situation, or at least as much as the playwright will let her. She hits all the right notes – she’s funny where the script is funny, powerful where the script demands it, and sympathetic enough to draw real worry from the audience in the plays mutedly dramatic conclusion.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is thick with metaphor that isn’t hard to identify but the concept is smart and the material sharp. The playwright asks good questions that will leave you deep in thought or discussion well into your ride home.
It may not be a play you come back to, but White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is one you shouldn’t miss the first time around.
Upcoming performances of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit:
09 November Capitol Hill Arts Workshop Michael Glenn*
16 November Capitol Hill Arts Workshop Nadia Mahdi
23 November Capitol Hill Arts Workshop Gwydion Suilebhan
02 December Anacostia Playhouse Michael Tolaydo*
08 December Anacostia Playhouse Adele Robey
15 December Anacostia Playhouse Jacobi Howard
The ticket price is $15 reserved in advance, or name your own price at the door.