One of the craziest plays Fort Worth has ever seen took place last week. That’s when Amphibian Stage Productions put on White Rabbit Red Rabbit, an experimental, unexpected, and often allegorical play written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. Theater critics have mostly gushed over it since the play debuted in 2011 at a festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. Writing about the hour-plus one-person work, however, is sort of tricky. The script is delivered to the actor for the first time onstage. The actor has no idea what to expect. The audience, too, has been warned against researching the play in advance. The playwright is pushing for spontaneity within the parameters of a script in what could be called a theatrical social experiment.
We solicited feedback from a few attendees and one performer. No matter what somebody thinks of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, it has proven to be unforgettable at least.
Local artist and Weekly contributor Christopher Blay helmed the play on the third night. (A different actor is required for every performance to maintain the element of surprise.) His night was a near sell-out, and Blay, despite a lack of acting experience, received a healthy round of applause at the end of the show.
Blay, speaking to us via email, said the script was “unrelenting in the ways that the author managed to insert himself between the audience and the performer.”
Sometimes Blay felt empowered by Soleimanpour’s words.
“There were other times,” he said, “where I was only a conduit for his words. In a Stanford-prison-experiment kind of way, we found ourselves in the middle of a grand psychological exercise, making consequential decisions that impacted us in profound ways. It was an unforgettable play that I was very happy I agreed to participate in.”
Most of the audience members that we spoke with (or slyly eavesdropped on) praised the play. A theatergoer who asked for anonymity pretty much represented the status quo with these words after seeing Sarah Clarke (24, Twilight) perform on the second night.
“First off, I’m not a big theatergoer,” she said. “I prefer movies. My mind usually wanders in plays but not with this one. This play forced me to stay focused because I was afraid I might be called on to perform. That was a bit uncomfortable at first, as we all had to call out numbers and be potential participants.
“It was interesting that the play unfolds in real time,” she continued. “We could see the actor’s hands shaking as she seemed nervous about doing this play unrehearsed with an unseen script. That was exciting for the audience. There was fear and exhilaration from both the actor and the audience participants.”
She also described the story as “a memorable experience” but saved most of her praise for Clarke and her “risky performance.”
Weekly writer Jeff Prince penned a cover story about two celebrated actors, Clarke and Xander Berkeley (The Walking Dead), coming to town to star in the vehicle (“Down the Rabbit Hole,” March 15). Prince was excited by the play’s premise when he attended the first night’s performance with Berkeley in the lead.
“Berkeley did a great job, as well as could be expected considering the material,” Prince said. “But Marlon Brando couldn’t have saved this play. It was repetitive and meandering at the same time. I didn’t even know that was possible. The playwright appeared to be trying to deliver an important message, but I never figured it out because the writing was so needlessly coy. Maybe there were cultural and language vacuums at work, although it just seemed to me that the playwright couldn’t write well, clearly, or even imaginatively, considering the experimental nature of the show. Having said this, I appreciate Amphibian for bringing offbeat presentations such as this to Cowtown. I’d rather watch White Rabbit again than Oklahoma or Fiddler on the Roof.”
More enthusiastic was Weekly contributor Jackie Hoermann-Elliott, who alluded to Lord of the Flies when describing the play as a “tale of artistic repression through an allegory of murderous bunnies.”
Hoermann-Elliott attended on the night Blay handled the acting.
“I had the pleasure of watching him cajole audience participation – and sympathy, at times — as he acted and solicited audience members to become actors with him onstage,” Hoermann-Elliott said. “Blay blended well with the playwright’s self-deprecating humor, nailing intermittent jabs at himself and his absent narrator. Theatergoers looking for sharp-witted humor ought to read the biographies of featured actors closely and accept that the personality of a particular thespian will seal or sour your post-show conversations.”
The fourth-night performance featuring War Party frontman Cameron Smith was a sellout, while the other four shows were near-sellouts, a Phibs spokesperson said.
Next up for Amphibian is the world premiere of The Trap (April 28-May 21). Kieran Lynn’s play tells the story of a young couple with financial struggles who rob a safe and become embroiled in a strange scenario.