October 17, 2018

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Performance of Iranian playwright's work thwarts those who would silence him

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/1/2015 (1377 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE Iranian dramatist Nassim Soleimanpour asks that a front-row seat be saved for him at all performances of his globe-trotting play White Rabbit Red Rabbit.

When Soleimanpour wrote his one-man show, he was barred from leaving the country after refusing to enlist for mandatory military duty. In a shrewd, effective bid for artistic freedom, he penned White Rabbit Red Rabbit in English, and in a way, his script was stuffed in a bottle and dropped into the ocean to wash up on shores all over the theatre world.

It was found by Ardith Boxall, artistic director of Theatre Projects Manitoba, who introduced it to a full house of 123 at the Rachel Browne Theatre Wednesday night. Soleimanpour’s 2011 work doesn’t ask much — it requires no director, no rehearsal, no set and only one courageous actor willing to wait to see the script for the first time on stage in front of an audience.

Boxall introduced her husband, Gordon Tanner, the leadoff actor in TPM’s 11-day run and handed him a sealed envelope containing the script with a “here ya go,” and walked off the stage. Tanner opened it and immediately began to read.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/1/2015 (1377 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THE Iranian dramatist Nassim Soleimanpour asks that a front-row seat be saved for him at all performances of his globe-trotting play White Rabbit Red Rabbit.

When Soleimanpour wrote his one-man show, he was barred from leaving the country after refusing to enlist for mandatory military duty. In a shrewd, effective bid for artistic freedom, he penned White Rabbit Red Rabbit in English, and in a way, his script was stuffed in a bottle and dropped into the ocean to wash up on shores all over the theatre world.

It was found by Ardith Boxall, artistic director of Theatre Projects Manitoba, who introduced it to a full house of 123 at the Rachel Browne Theatre Wednesday night. Soleimanpour’s 2011 work doesn’t ask much — it requires no director, no rehearsal, no set and only one courageous actor willing to wait to see the script for the first time on stage in front of an audience.

Boxall introduced her husband, Gordon Tanner, the leadoff actor in TPM’s 11-day run and handed him a sealed envelope containing the script with a "here ya go," and walked off the stage. Tanner opened it and immediately began to read.

At last the shroud of secrecy surrounding White Rabbit Red Rabbit was being lifted. The 17 actors had agreed not to seek to learn anything about the play and the media was cautioned not to give anything away. So neither actor nor audience knew what to expect, which heightened the anticipation.

Theatre Projects Manitoba is staging White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.  Artistic director Ardith Boxall (centre) holding the scripts, while surrounded by some of the actors taking part in the production. From left to right in front are Tom Keenan and Janice Skene; second row: Loc Lu, Sarah Constible, Sharon Bajer, Shawna Dempsey and Carson Nattress; back row: Ian Ross, Arne McPherson, Gord Tanner,  Bathelemy Bolivar, Leith Clark and  Stephen Sim. Every night a lone actor will be given the script they have never seen before and then perform it on the spot.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Theatre Projects Manitoba is staging White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Artistic director Ardith Boxall (centre) holding the scripts, while surrounded by some of the actors taking part in the production. From left to right in front are Tom Keenan and Janice Skene; second row: Loc Lu, Sarah Constible, Sharon Bajer, Shawna Dempsey and Carson Nattress; back row: Ian Ross, Arne McPherson, Gord Tanner, Bathelemy Bolivar, Leith Clark and Stephen Sim. Every night a lone actor will be given the script they have never seen before and then perform it on the spot.

The silver-haired Tanner, dressed all in black, pulled out a vial of poison and placed it on the table near two glasses of water. They were the only props besides a wooden chair and metal ladder. As any student of Chekhov knows, introducing something like poison early means it will be used later.

Soleimanpour may be absent, as his empty seat indicated, but his presence is felt throughout the hour-long monologue that is described not so much as a play, but an experiment. It’s really an open letter to the outside world. We hear about his plight, the sour orange tree in his backyard in Tehran and how difficult it was to write in English.

No matter the physical distance from Winnipeg, Soleimanpour is in complete control; Tanner is simply his conduit to the audience. He made all present obey his orders and urged anyone with questions or comments to email him. Tanner gave out his email address twice and Soleimanpour promised to reply if he was still alive, another ominous interjection to what was otherwise a playful atmosphere.

The house lights were up throughout; all the better for the playwright to display his crowd control, cleverly getting every spectator to do something they never do — speak out loud for everyone to hear during a performance. The obligatory participation included stage appearances, note-taking and a financial contribution.

The novelty of the form is more appealing than the fable about a rabbit going to the circus without a ticket. Without giving too much away, the rabbits are joined by crows, bears, a cheetah and, for no apparent reason, an ostrich. Not always clear or moving are Soleimanpour’s musings on conformist pressures, personal freedom and social obedience. What it does demand of a viewer is an answer to what kind of rabbit you are.

Every show will be different because each night a performer gets a one-and-only shot at a cold read of Soleimanpour’s script. Tanner is a familiar stage veteran who offered a crisp reading, a genial presence and a comfort with spontaneous interpretation. His improvisations never take off down the rabbit hole, although he manages to crack up the audience by silently acting out a lightning-fast review of the story. His ostrich impersonation is good enough not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.

Time has caught up to White Rabbit Red Rabbit, as Soleimanpour was granted a passport and saw it for the first time in Melbourne, Australia, in 2013. That personal triumph does not take away from how he thwarted with his pen those who sought to silence him.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

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