Arts & Theater

Theater review: ‘White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’ is provocative, creative and tepid

“White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” is a provocative new play that opened recently at the B Street Theater.

Yes, there is a rabbit as a central character, coming in two shades.

Other than that everything about this play is supposed to be unusual, unpredictable, so some of that unpredictability will be undermined if you read any further. Some readers may want to Stop! reading here (a command repeated occasionally in the play), and just attend the play. My job, however, demands we continue.

As the audience enters, the entire setting is basically bare, minimalist, but bathed in red: a red curtain, red floor, red table, red chair, red ladder. Once the play starts, the spotlight creating this monochrome effect is withdrawn.

Like the setting, the play superficially appears bare and minimalist, as if it’s entirely created by the audience. There is no director, there’s been no rehearsal, and each night the central (and only) actor changes and the theater manager hands them a sealed script and a prop. When the play calls for others besides the central character, who is also a bit of a “stage manager,” these performers are pulled from the audience, randomly, to play various animals, provide props, or money, or to record the action. Thus, the play is different every night, and some theatergoers at my show readily admitted to having been to previous performances.

The one act, lasting a little over an hour, has a kind of experimental, chaotic and nonexistent structure, but it does introduce us to Nassim Soleimanpour, who conceived of the play and who addressed the audience directly through the lines the stage manager speaks. He said he is Iranian and is under a kind of “country arrest,” and that, wherever and whenever we may be as we see it, he wrote it in 2011. Gradually we become conscious of how much this play, or any play, is a texture of words coming from a single distant, perhaps bygone source, and passed to us. Much is made of the consciousness of this dilemma. Since writing this play, Soleimanpour was eventually allowed by Iran to travel, and his four plays have been translated into 20 languages and won awards.

At some level – the rabbit hole level? – the play is a fable, or a parable, perhaps even a farce, or a lab experiment with rabbits, most of whom start out white, and are confronted with challenges of starvation, food and dominance. Like most experiments with rabbits, supposedly it bears on the human condition. And members of the audience were designated, inter alia, as rabbits. The audience was frequently called upon not only to volunteer as actors, but to applaud, which they dutifully did.

The prime role on October 23 was played by Kurt Johnson, and he was convincing and casual in his street clothes, tennis shoes, glasses, and reluctance to disclose his age, as well as in his bemused attitude toward the words he read from Soleimanpour’s script. He did a fairly creditable rendition of one animal pretending to be another animal.

Despite its humorous, near absurd, playful and casual atmosphere, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” does touch on serious themes, murder, suicide (there are 18 ways, it is said), political repression and the meaning of life. The themes always come in a slightly detached way, because frequently the author addresses the audience directly and the topics are primarily discussed rather than acted out or shown.

As the audience obeys what the playwright requests, he also simultaneously observes and questions their tendency to obedience and wonders how far they would go in doing what someone else says or writes.

At the play’s end everyone, including the audience, is gone and only the protagonist remains, prone, as the script he had just read directed him to do. If a theatergoer likes random members engaging in audience-participation activities, this could be the ticket. Otherwise, the show is a bit tepid. Its saving grace is that it’s barely more than an hour long. And the self-conscious philosophical questions the playwright raises about the nature of dramatic art, of audience and author, and even the reality of what we see on stage, are intriguing.

If you go

“White Rabbit, Red Rabbit”

When: Tuesdays through Sundays until November 10. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday evenings at 8, Saturday matinees at 5, Sunday matinees at 2.

Where: B Street Theater, 2700 Capitol Avenue

Price: $25

Info and tickets: (916) 443-5300