In order to get to White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour — as much as we can, that is — we need to start here and now. For me, here and now means sitting in front of a computer at my day job at 8:44am on April 13th, 2018, trying to rewind to where and how I was last night in seat 44D, watching Susannah Mars slit open a white envelope, lean forward, and begin.
Here and now for you is something else. You are somewhere, too, reading these words that I am typing and deleting, typing and deleting again, trying to distill a wild tangle of thoughts about performance and politics and ostriches into what is, at the end of the day, a collection of pixels on a screen. I don’t know where you are, or when you are, or even if you are. Do we have anything in common? Is when you are anything like when I am? Despite the superficial differences that are sure to exist between us, there are some things that don’t change. More importantly, in this moment of me writing, which is my present and your past, and your reading, which is your present and my future, we are connected.
This is only the tiniest fragment of what makes White Rabbit Red Rabbit special, and there is only so much I can say about how and why it works before it feels like a betrayal of the piece, not to mention of both the Nassim Soleimanpour who wrote it in 2010 and the Nassim Soleimanpour who, we assume, we hope, is still out there writing in 2018. The set-up is deceptively simple: every night, a different actor takes the stage (in this run, as part of the A.R.T. Frontier Series: Susannah Mars, John San Nicolas, Ayanna Berkshire, and Darius Pierce). In the room are a sealed envelope containing the text, two glasses of water, a ladder, a group of individuals who have decided to become an audience. Crucially, the actor has never seen the text before, and together with the audience, they plunge blindly into a tale that slips from broad, comedic allegory to presumed autobiography to a subtler critique of the many visible and invisible systems that have convinced us we are under their control.
It would just be a clever gimmick, except that the precipice this mechanism strands the actor and the audience on, together, is what creates its power. It’s also its greatest weakness, a intentional duality of form that’s reflected throughout the piece’s many narrative strands. The success of this show is inseparable from the particular give and take between that night’s actor and that night’s audience, which is an electrifying prospect; however, on the night I saw it, the vocal overconfidence of a few, scattered audience members pulled focus in ways that deflated moments I would have liked to have seen breathe, and overall made for an experience that was more uneven than I would have liked. But I want to be clear that, in this, my disappointment might very well have been someone else’s delight — any frustrations or false starts are also very much the point, and I’m tempted to think that Nassim Soleimanpour would actually be thrilled.
After all, there is no real way to prepare for whatever will happen next. There are no rehearsals for choosing to trust someone, for making up your own mind, for doing the right thing. Over 12 hours later, here in my present that is also your past, sitting in front of a computer at my day job, I am also still frozen in seat 44D, my stomach knotting as Nassim Soleimanpour, with the skill and cooperation of Susannah Mars, and the attention and cooperation of April 12th’s audience, slowly twisted a rhetorical knife that didn’t seem dangerous until it was too late.