It is tempting to call White Rabbit, Red Rabbit an unreviewable play. It has no director, no scenic designer, and a different actor playing the single role at each performance.
On stage there is a white ladder, and a black table and chair. On the table there are two glasses of water, a spoon, and a single manila envelope containing the script. Actors performing White Rabbit, Red Rabbit are asked to do three things: to not see the play, to not drink from the glasses of water on the stage, and to prepare an ostrich impersonation.
Even before the envelope is opened, things are different. First, the customary please-turn-off-your-phones announcement doesn’t happen, and second, the house lights come back up again immediately. Within a few minutes, it’s clear why: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a piece performed by both actor and audience.
It should be said, though, that audience participation — those dreaded words — isn’t really what’s going on here, and to reveal why you might want to keep your phone on, why every audience member is assigned a number, or why you might like to take a carrot along in your bag with you would be to say far too much.
On opening night it was Catherine McClements who stepped into the unrehearsed, unnamed title role. It’s the classic nightmare, the one we’ve all woken up from: standing on stage before an expectant audience, about to perform a play you don’t know. McClements turned the nightmare on its head. Hearing her discover the script as she read it aloud was pure, unadulterated joy. Watching an actor prepare for a role as it comes out of their mouth is equal parts terrifying and delicious, and McClements seemed to delight in her own vulnerability and occasional bewilderment, and relished the twists that cast the audience as her co-conspirators.
Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour is Iranian. His status as a conscientious objector prevents him from leaving his native Tehran, but with this work he has written something that can travel in ways he is unable to. He’s absent from the room, but very much present. The play happens in his voice — we’re introduced to Suleimanpour, to his thoughts, and to the bitter orange tree that’s growing just outside his window. He tells the actor what to do, he tells the audience what to do, and he tells us what he thinks of us while we’re doing it. He even, at several points, gives us his email address. But again, to tell you why, or to say any more about the evening that unfolds would be to reveal too much.
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit promises to be a new work every night, with a surprising roster of actors — and non-actors — lined up for the rest of the run. It is hilarious, thoughtful and — in the best possible way — entirely uncomfortable. This is a potent reminder of the transgressive, transformative power of theatre, a zebra standing cockily in a stable full of packhorses. There’s magic here, and while it can’t be bottled, you can certainly buy yourself an hour in its presence.
The details: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit plays Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre until August 3. Tickets on the company website.