White Rabbit Red Rabbit

by Nassim Soleimanpour
M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015: Art & Loss
(organised and curated by TNS)
Esplanade Recital Studio, Singapore

There's no director. No set. An actor is handed a sealed envelope containing a script and begins to read it for the first time. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit Red Rabbit is an odd yet strangely compelling piece of theatre, where whimsicality rubs shoulders with a sombre meditation on art and censorship.

This second staging of the play in Singapore in connection with the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015 features four performances with a different actor on each night (Lim Kay Siu, Pam Oei, Benjamin Kheng and Karen Tan). None of the actors know what to expect and part of the mystery is that neither does the audience. On the night I catch this, charismatic local actor-musician Benjamin Kheng rises confidently to the task and proves adept at carrying the hour-long performance.

Things start on a playful note. An audience member is invited onstage to enact the tale of a white rabbit who tries to cover its large, unsightly ears when buying tickets to a performance. At one point, the actor intervenes with a stylised ostrich impersonation (this is one of the few things the actor has been told to prepare beforehand). There is plenty of laughter and part of the oddball charm of the play is that everything that transpires is utterly dependent on the particular actor controlling what takes place on stage and the reactions he elicits from his audience.

The animal theme takes on a darker undercurrent when we are told about an experiment involving five white rabbits in a cage containing a piece of carrot placed atop a ladder. Whenever a rabbit reaches for the carrot, that rabbit is dyed red while the others are drenched with cold water. The other rabbits then turn on the red rabbit. As the red rabbits are eventually replaced with new white rabbits, it is observed that each red rabbit in turn is attacked by his peers, even when the carrot and the cold water are taken out of the equation.

Throughout the performance, we are acutely made aware of the playwright. Like a silent, powerful hand rising up through the script, Soleimanpour asks after the actor speaking his words aloud, wonders what the audience watching him during that performance is like and tells us a little bit about himself. We learn that he is a 29-year-old Iranian who is not allowed to leave his country on account of his refusal to carry out mandatory military service. The play, in effect, is the passport he does not have, his way of meeting people and travelling to places he would otherwise never have been able to.

Finally, as things wrap up, Soleimanpour tells us that one of the two glasses of water on stage is poisoned. The actor must make a decision as to whether he wants to drink from one of the glasses. After that, he must lie down on the floor while the audience leaves, unaware of how things will turn out. Kheng raises a glass to his lips only to have it snatched out of his hands by a woman who suddenly walks up on the stage and empties both glasses on the floor. I guess he is going to be fine.

One cannot deny that White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a unique and engaging theatrical experience. It reminds us, with cheeky charm, how theatre is a tool to connect people and places - a thread that links playwright, actor and audience despite geographical or linguistic boundaries. True to the theme of this year's Fringe Festival, it also underscores a particular type of art and loss: the loss of a playwright who can never see the play he has created being performed live. However, the actual content is perhaps not as groundbreaking as one would have hoped. There are disparate strands about acceptance, censorship and humanity that linger in Soleimanpour's words and one feels that these are never neatly wrapped up. Ultimately, the best way to enjoy this play is to sit back and let the magic of live theatre unfold before one's eyes. There's nothing quite like the thrill of the unexpected.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5


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