Choose a play, print out the script, seal it in an envelope, hire an actor, get an audience together, hand the envelope to the performer and get ready for a wild ride as the envelope is opened and the text is read aloud — for the first and last time by this particular actor — live.
Which is exactly what Scott Barrow has planned for Vineyard audiences on three separate dates, with three different actors, all performing Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s “White Rabbit Red Rabbit.” You’ve got three chances to take the ride: Saturday, March 16, at the PAC, Saturday, March 23, at Pathways, co-produced by the M.V. Film Festival, and Friday, March 29, at the M.V. Playhouse; all shows are at 7 pm.
Iranian is significant here, as playwright Soleimanpour wrote the script in 2010, during a time when he was forbidden to leave the country, based on his refusal to serve mandatory military service. Soleimanpour had things to say, and he decided writing a one-man-show that could be distributed via the Internet, needing no rehearsals, might be a way to be heard.
And heard he has been, with “Rabbit” having been performed more than 1,000 times, translated into 25 languages, and starring a who’s who in theater, including Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Juliet Stevenson, and John Hurt. Soleimanpour has continued writing ingenious theater pieces, meddling with traditional theatrical rules. Happily, he is now able to travel, having been granted a passport in 2013 based on a medical exemption granted due to vision problems.
For Soleimanpour’s “Rabbit,” expect surprises, skillful delivery, absurdist moments, thought-provoking notions, all written — perhaps devised is a better word — with a contemporary sensibility that turns convention on its head, quite different from a standard monologue.
Barrow, a popular Vineyard actor hot on the heels of the starring role in last summer’s smash “Hamlet” produced by the M.V. Playhouse, comes and goes to the Island. As a longtime member of New York City’s Tectonic Theatre Project, founded by Moisés Kaufman, Barrow played in the Broadway production of “33 Variations,” and has worked independently at a veritable honor roll of the country’s regional theaters.
As producer of “Rabbit,” Barrow says, “I think of this play as a theatrical event, which is happening on three planes simultaneously. First, there’s the story itself that is being told, then there is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of witnessing a talented actor performing material they’ve never, ever seen before, and then we get to watch and participate in the actor’s reality of deciding how and if they want to play along with what the script asks them to do.” Barrow is also directing, and in this case, one wonders what that means, as there are no rehearsals allowed.
With no rehearsals, the director doesn’t actually have much to do. Casting is certainly the most obvious task, and Barrow, for the March 16 PAC performance, has cast Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, a longtime colleague (and co-director with Chelsea McCarthy of the aforementioned smashing “Hamlet”). “I know nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Ditchfield says, laughing. “In fact, when Scott mentioned it to me a couple of months ago, he said the only thing he would say is that I should avoid reading any news or reviews about it. So it’s quite literally a blank page. I am to do as I’ve been told, which is to show up and act.”
“It’s a difficult thing to do this kind of ‘cold read,’ and Ditchfield is perfectly suited to take on the challenge,” Barrow says. “She’s an enormously talented actress — very grounded, spontaneous, and has the ability to connect with ‘Rabbit’s’ message. She works improvisationally while somehow instantly managing to connect with the material. She’s emotionally available, and ‘says yes’ while also maintaining a strong ‘b.s. meter.’”
Barrow agrees with Ditchfield, who believes, “The challenge in theater is always to be in the moment, and one of the main ways an actor does that is to listen and react. As there’s no scene partner, this means listening to the script as I speak it with my whole body and heart, and allowing that to inform my ongoing choices.”
As an author, Soleimanpour himself is interested in the story, in breaking the mold as he tells the story, and the way in which this adds to the visceral nature of the event. He, as well as Barrow and Ditchfield, is interested in theater as community, in the experience that evolves between live performers and the audience — a sense of an intimate shared history.
I don’t know about you, but I want to see all three performances, to see what’s different and what’s the same. In other words, what Soleimanpour originally got up to on the page and what the actor gets up to on the stage.
For ticket information for all three performances, visit stagesonthesound.com or reserve your seats by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. March 16 PAC tickets are $20 adults, $12 students, and are pay-what-you-will on March 23 for Pathways/MVFF and March 29 at the M.V. Playhouse. Performances are rated PG-13: parents strongly cautioned — some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Sixty minutes, more or less, no intermission. Tickets are available at the doors, but with limited space, reservations are strongly encouraged.