What they say it is :
A different actor at each performance reads for the first (and last) time, the true life story of a young Iranian. Will you really listen?
When Nassim Soleimanpour refused military service and was forbidden to leave his home country of Iran, he wrote a playand sent it off to see the world in his stead. FringeArts’ 12-performance engagement of White Rabbit Red Rabbit follows Soleimanpour’s rules: A script waits in a sealed envelope. The audience arrives. Each night, a different actor steps on stage and opens the envelope, reading the script aloud for the first — and last — time. A brilliant work of theater composed of a rabbit, a bear, a ladder, a circus, a carrot, some poison, a playwright, an actor and you, White Rabbit Red Rabbit brings its author in touch with an audience to have a shared, intimate and exhilarating experience despite being separated by thousands of miles.
My ‘main’ birthday celebration took place the night before this show; we’d enjoyed yet another awesome Rubblebucket show (this time at Union Transfer) with a bunch of great friends. In spite of almost busting my ankle on a slippery pair of steps and then spending the day in doctor’s visits and radiology testing, I remained devoted to squeezing in one last Fringe show before the conclusion of this year’s festival.
Driving to work one morning, I’d heard Jennifer Lynn mention she’d be hosting the performance of White Rabbit Red Rabbit on September 19th. As a regular listener to our local WHYY public radio station, I experienced an immediate “I wonder what this disembodied voice will look like in real life” moment. When we spotted some slightly discounted tickets for the show, Tara bought me one for my birthday, and off we went.
This was our first visit to the remodeled FringeArts building. Wow—what a difference a few months can make. While Tara and I completely enjoyed the informal nature of the building’s earlier incarnation (open concrete waiting area + beer buckets—think industrial chic) , this new face wasn’t even in the same universe. You enter through a stylish outdoor waiting area with patio bar and tables, and coming inside, find yourself in an almost too-trendy-for-it’s-own-good restaurant&bar. I can’t lie; as an insistently casual (and by some accounts, ‘semi-unconventional’) West Philadelphian, I felt a little out of place. For the record, the remodeled FringeArts building is very nice. I’m a huge craft beer drinker, and the selection of bottles and taps for my pre-show libation (along with reasonable pricing) did not disappoint. But if I’m honest, as a Philadelphian of 10+ years, I always feel a little squeamish when I see Philly trying to fancy up its game. Sure, I’m a regular patron of trendy beer bars and art spots (among my many favorites, I’d list Local 44, Barcade, Union Transfer, Interstate Draft House, Monk’s Café, and Christ Church Neighborhood House) but the difference is that the best Philadelphia spots know how to mix the Cool aesthetic with Philly’s roughneck, low-income, we-don’t-give-too-much-of-a-f#$k ethos. I’m more than happy to eat an occasional meal or two at upscale spots like Vedge or Amada, but these are the exception to the rule. On average, I’m well-suited to the lowbrowish vibe embraced by our city. By comparison—and naturally, I could be wrong—the new appearance at La Peg (FringeArt’s restaurant) made me suspect that the owners may be aspiring to a more well-heeled Kimmel Center demographic. I’m sure it will all work out and I’ll get used to the new look, but a part of me wonders if the venue’s updated décor could end up alienating the SOP theater riffraff and rebellious art patrons—the very folks who will inevitably be the bulk of their weekly audience. But I’m probably just worrying about nothing. ;’]
ANYWAY—White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. Ok, so, my review isn’t going to be particularly glowing this time, and I’m going to spend an inordinate amount of time whining–but it’s critical that I explain why factors were working against my enjoyment of the show. Firstly, due to a completely sold out house, the venue was assigning seats at the door—a first in our experience. I’m pretty tall (umbrellas don’t work for me), so while I usually race to grab any aisle-accessible seat, this evening found us situated in the middle of a full aisle at the very top of the venue. FringeArts seats are a little less roomy than your typical airline chair, so you can imagine my joy. Secondly, the folks seated behind us notified me that they were having trouble seeing whenever I’d lean forward in my seat (a consequence of both my height, coupled with back and leg discomfort), so I was now also required to sit straight and still—this was starting to feel a bit like high school history class with Mr. Kugle (“MR. CLAY, slouching is for slouches–please sit up and pay ATTENTION to the lesson!”) Finally, and this one was actually the most problematic for my attention to the show—a large group of Temple students were seated in a section a few rows in front of us. “Good!”, you might exclaim, “I’m glad to hear that these younglings are being exposed to the high arts as part of their curricula!” Unfortunately, unless Facebook, text messaging, and Instagram now qualify as aesthetic education, these overgrown children learned exactly diddly squat during the WRRR performance. Seated a few rows behind them, it was impossible for me to ignore this row of rude people with brightly lit screens. Every few moments their attention would wander and they’d light up another telephone screen to check email or surf their endless catalog of selfies. Regrettably, I was too far from the kids to easily do anything about it (3 rows between us, and landlocked in a tightly-packed aisle), but thanks to the near-vertical layout of the upper deck seating, they were perfectly placed to let all of the rear rows witness their electronic distraction and obvious boredom.
It is with the rant above in mind that the reader should understand the context of my WRRR experience. Annoyingly, honesty requires me to admit that I, like the rude students, was also bored by the show. WRRR began with a complicated fable about animals and tickets to enter an event—but even on reflection, I never quite understood either the meaning or the connection of this segment to the play’s overall body. This introductory skit was tough to follow as Jennifer Lynn was required to both read lines and then stop the show to recruit stand-in players from the audience. I kept forgetting what exactly was happening, or missing the point of the story itself. It’s a shame, but I’m forced to conclude that the show’s introduction was needlessly opaque—something a first time playwright finds amusing to write, but should have been honed (or entirely cut) by a skilled editor.
Once we got past that overlong introduction, it turned out that most of WRRR is told as a meta-narrative, sort of a stream-of-consciousness rambling via a playwright living in Iran. There were plenty of fun ideas that conveyed a very modern “I, the author, am speaking directly to you” sort of voice, but I found myself struggling to connect with any overarching story or meaning. The general idea seemed to be that the author might never know if his work was being performed, or even escaping the walls of Iran—sort of a commentary on closed societies and the strangeness that happens when artwork transcends political barriers. These did feel like interesting concepts, but the execution was a mishmash of confusion and poorly joined ideas. Truth be told, even after having seen the entire play, I barely comprehend the meaning of the show’s title (something about Red Rabbits choosing their own destinies vs. the mass of people who suffer for their slowness?) or really understand what the show was trying to say. Rather than giving us and unified field of understanding—annoyances with our seating and fellow show-goers aside—I ultimately felt like White Rabbit Red Rabbit is the product of a young author, one who has obvious interests in postmodern narrative, amalgam, and connecting with audiences—but who desperately needs a strong-handed editor to force their ideas into a digestible, single-steam format. There was just too much going on here for the show’s own good.
Jennifer Lynn, it must be said, was awesome. She’s dynamic, energetic, funny, self-effacing, and personable. One would think her day job was television or stage acting, rather than a behind-the-mic news reporter. She was in comically good spirits about the nature of the play (she’d never read the script before, so was constantly surprised at each turn of the page) and brought a lively delivery to each strange plot twist and authorial indulgence. Without her energy, this show would have been dead in the water. Unfortunately, even as a one-woman show with a great leading woman, a great performer wasn’t enough to save this one for me.