Denizen pushes the theatrical envelope with White Rabbit Red Rabbit

Opening night: Ben Williamson (First Rabbit and co-artistic director) and Harry Lipstein (founder/producing artistic director).

When Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour wrote his groundbreaking theatrical experience White Rabbit Red Rabbit in 2010, he wasn’t allowed to leave the country. A conscientious objector, he refused to sign up for obligatory military service, thereby becoming ineligible to obtain a passport. So he wrote a play designed to go viral around the world and bring him feedback from audiences in many countries – literally: Part of the script involves giving out his e-mail address and encouraging viewers to report back to him on how the show went. It was his vehicle for virtual travel, connecting with others via the magic of the stage.

There isn’t much more detail in which a reviewer of White Rabbit Red Rabbit can indulge without spoiling its content. It is structured to be performed as a “cold reading” by a different actor every night – an actor who has neither read the script nor ever seen a performance of the play. Thousands of actors have risen to the challenge over the past decade, some of them quite famous, and not every one has relished such a raw experience of “winging it.” There’s some room for improv built into the script, but mostly it requires a close and exact reading. Following the author’s instructions to the letter is essential to the message he’s trying to convey.

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And boy, what a message. Given what we know going in about the author’s life experience, it’s probably safe to divulge that White Rabbit Red Rabbit can be interpreted politically. But the questions the play raises are broader and more philosophical than that. Audiences certainly don’t need to have ever lived in a place like Iran to spot how these questions challenge our assumptions – about art, about life, about free will and responsibility, about the choices we make or decline to make, about how beliefs and behavior patterns become self-perpetuating. In The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein divides people up into two categories she sees as fundamental: those who act and those who resist. I suspect she would have found White Rabbit Red Rabbit as delightful, unsettling and thought-provoking as I did.

All this comes alive and starts to make sense once the play gets underway, as it is doing 14 times this month at Denizen Theatre in New Paltz’s Water Street Market. The audience is seated in view of a simple stage setup: a rug on the floor, a ladder, a stool and a little table on which rest two glasses of water. The actor of the moment – Connie Ray (Thank You for Smoking, Stuart Little, ER) on the night that this reviewer attended – is introduced and handed a sealed envelope. One additional prop has been placed in the actor’s pocket on the way in.

The performance begins, and with it, almost immediately, the audience interaction. In one way or another, you will be asked to cooperate (if you’re a reviewer bearing a notepad, you might end up taking notes). You can accept; you can decline; you can do something other than you’re directed to do. All such choices help shape the experience of the play, as will your ability to suspend disbelief in seemingly improbable outcomes.

The rabbits in the title are meaningful, at least metaphorically. Animal imagery starts out fanciful and ends up something much more sober as the stakes of the action escalate. One thing’s for certain: For all its interactivity, White Rabbit Red Rabbit is no lightweight murder-mystery dinner theater. Serious questions are raised here, and the audience as well as the designated actor are challenged to grapple with them.

If this all sounds tantalizingly vague, go with the being-tantalized part, lest I divulge far too much. Suffice it to say that White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a must-see for anyone who looks to theater for more than entertainment, who thinks deeply about what is asked of us in being human and living on this fragile planet in difficult times, in societies and under leadership that may not have our best interests at heart.

Upcoming performances of White Rabbit Red Rabbit at Denizen begin at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Actors scheduled to undertake the challenge are Hettie Barnhill on July 25, Shadowland Theater’s Brendan Burke on July 26, Sean Cullen on July 27, Carolyn McCormick on July 28, the Rosendale Theatre’s Ann Citron on July 31, J. J. Kandel on August 1, John Leonard Pielmeier on August 2 and Thomas Sadoski on August 3. Tickets cost $28 general admission, $24 for seniors, $15 for young people under age 30 and $5 for students. Those who wish to reexperience White Rabbit Red Rabbit a second or third time with a different actor get a $5 discount. To order, visit https://ci.ovationtix.com/35097/production/1006681.

Also, leave time before the performance to check out “A Picture Paints 1,000 Words,” the art exhibit currently on view in the Denizen Theatre lobby, curated by Wendy Lipstein, Marcy Bernstein and Alex Baer. Thirteen local artists were given canvases and invited to a “mystery painting party” where they were given two hours to paint their response to a one-word prompt: either “Freedom” or “Conformity.” The paintings are for sale for either $75 or $90 depending on size, and proceeds will be split between the artists and Wild Earth.

For more information, visit www.denizentheatre.com/white-rabbit-red-rabbit.

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