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THEATRE REVIEW: Astonishingly original ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ a multi-facted query of mortality

The play appears plotless, but is anchored by the most classical narrative structure—conflict underpins everything that happens.

Pure theater transcends space and time, and that’s what happened Saturday night at the Chester Theatre Company with the performance of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” written in 2010 by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. With astonishing originality, Soleimanpour’s work—a multi-faceted query of mortality, really—connected the audience in Town Hall in a remote village in western Massachusetts to Tehran (or wherever the playwright is reading his email, which he encourages the audience to use). His “intermediary,” actor Joel Ripka, who, like every actor (Whoopi Goldberg and Nathan Lane, for examples) who has taken on this role before, reads the play cold, undirected and unrehearsed. Playing Nassim involves a lot of interaction with the audience, for which Ripka is ideally suited, having excelled in solo performance improvised with audience in Chester’s fine production of “Every Brilliant Thing” last summer. (Ripka returns to Chester in August in the cast of “The Aliens,” directed by artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer.)

Joel Ripka

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” should be as new and spontaneous for its actor as it should be for its audience, so I’ll omit details and limit observations to its broad themes. The play appears plotless, but is anchored by the most classical narrative structure—conflict underpins everything that happens. Theater patrons selected from the audience by Ripka become adversaries in a fable about animal characters, which sets the stage for a series of choices Nassim (Joel) faces, and that we, the audience, are witness to—or are we participants?

Nassim has audacious humor, and the charming Ripka has fun with the audience, but the dichotomies presented are heady: terrorism or security, freedom or imprisonment, memory or reality. Either/or applies even to a pair of props (no spoiler here) which, ultimately, test the audience’s will in the very question of Nassim’s survival. Most amazingly, Nassim negotiates his journey as allegory for theater. Described more accurately as “multidisciplinary theatre maker,” Soleimanpour delights in theatre’s contradictory artifice—making believe to explain reality. He plumbs the very the nature of storytelling, reminding us constantly that, without audience, there is no story.

There’s nothing derivative about Nassim’s storytelling, even though Becket, Pinter and Albee come to mind. The title “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” comes from a laboratory experiment Nassim (Joel) describes in scientific detail. You can’t have red rabbits without white ones. Or is it you can’t have white ones without the red?

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