Arts, Culture & Media

This play from Iran is an actor’s nightmare

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Credit: Stanley Photography

Robert Montenegro in "White Rabbit, Red Rabbit" at Theater Alliance in Washington, DC.

Actors face stage fright all the time. But consider this scenario: you show up to perform a one-person show, and you’ve never seen the script.

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You don’t know what it’s about because you promised not to do any research. It’s your first performance, and the only one you’ll ever have. The theater’s artistic director hands you a fat manila envelope with a script. And go. 

Also, the audience will decide whether you drink a glass of water that appears to have been poisoned.

This is the premise of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour.

“I did not know what was in front of me inside that envelope,” says actor Gwydion Suilebhan. “What if this script is going to require that I disrobe? Or insult my mother? Or be rude or self-debasing?” 

The script instructs "The Actor" to tell a story, a parable about a rabbit who won’t wear a headscarf (think Animal Farm set in Tehran). The actor uses funny voices for the crows and bears, but the larger story is about how people manipulate each other.

“We are always part of this manipulation system,” says Soleimanpour. “We want to sit and complain that we are not slaves, but meanwhile, we’d rather stay in the cage. That’s us. We have to accept it.”

The Actor is also told to do ridiculous things — and to get mad about them. “Fuck this crazy Iranian,” he says, reading Soleimanpour’s lines. “I agreed to do this thing because it was about rabbits. Now suddenly I have to play a cheetah who does an ostrich dance. I don’t think that’s fair.”

Soleimanpour pulls his strings from afar, because — although the play has been performed in Toronto, Berlin, San Francisco, Brisbane, Edinburgh, London, and now Washington, DC — he really is in a cage. He doesn’t have a passport and can’t leave Iran, so he has never seen his play performed.

“Nassim has given up the kind of control that is customary for playwrights,” says actor Suilebhan, of working with actors and directors to realize the play. “At the same time, because he has put all of these restrictions on how it is to be performed, he has seized certain kinds of control that playwrights normally do not have. So he is literally embodying the ideas of control and submission and manipulation that he’s baked into his script.”

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit will be performed at several theaters in the Washington, DC, area through March.

You can find find this story by Richard Paul, along with others and conversation about creativity, pop culture and the arts at PRI's Studio 360.

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