What do you say in a review where you’re not really supposed to discuss the plot of the show you’re reviewing? When you’ve been asked by the very playwright himself (or at least from a note in the pre-show press materials you received) to keep the specifics a secret?
A lot, it turns out, if the show is as provocative as 4th Wall Theatre Company’s digital production of White Rabbit Red Rabbit.
Everything about Rabbit’s 70 minutes defies the conventional precepts of theater—there’s no director, no set, no rehearsals, and barely any props. Just a script, at first encased inside an unassuming manila envelope, is given to the show’s single actor for them to read cold in front of a live audience.
And an actor’s only ever allowed to “perform” the play once, just one of the reasons everyone, from Nathan Lane to Whoopi Goldberg, have opted to take the hot seat. When I watched Rabbit on opening night (the show runs through April 30), 4th Wall’s co-founder/co-artistic director Philip Lehl took up the task; come Saturday, Golden Globe winner Laura Linney will step onto the Houston theater’s Zoom stage.
These stakes are enough to make anyone “nervous as a cat,” as Lehl put it before peeling back the envelope’s seal and easing out the script with the timidity one would use when approaching a feral animal. And his uneasy laughter continued throughout the performance. This uncertainty of both actor and audience seeps into Rabbit’s every word, heightening the metaphorical, animal-filled tales and it swings in tone as playwright Nassim Soleimanpour guides his unassuming audience on a journey of mortality, conformity, and complicity.
It’s a voyage tinged with humor and absurdity … right up until the moment it isn’t. And when that moment arrives, it feels like a gut punch.
While Rabbit is utterly enthralling, it’s hard at times to not feel like you’re missing out on part of the show’s very essence by watching it through a screen, especially as the play explains what would have happened had the audience and actor been together inside a theater.
But, in a way, that physical distance adds a new clarity to Soleimanpour’s captivating words. The physical isolation makes his script—written more than a decade ago, when the Iranian playwright was confined to his homeland because he refused to complete the country’s compulsory military service, and now read under the backdrop of a global pandemic—feel that much more potent.
Thru April 30. From $30. Zoom. More info and tickets at 4thwalltheatreco.com.