Theater review: Theater Alliance’s “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’

(Courtesy Theater Alliance) - Audience members interact with the actors of Theater Alliance’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.

(Courtesy Theater Alliance) - Audience members interact with the actors of Theater Alliance’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.

One of the most fascinating shows in Washington right now will barely cost you any money. It’s never been rehearsed. It’s performed by a different actor each night, and it’s only being done a couple times a month, roving from venue to venue.

Most tantalizing of all, it brings you into remarkably close contact with a real person who isn’t there, Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. In a brilliant paradox, Soleimanpour exerts deliberate and near-total control over an actor and an audience from his own isolation in Tehran, where he wrote this play when he could not obtain a visa out of his country.

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The piece is called “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” and because it’s designed to be read live by someone who’s never seen the script, it unfolds as a bit of a stunt. The actor is handed a sealed bundle of pages, and what can he do but open and obey? Of course, we all agree to play along with, say, Soleimanpour’s pretend scenario involving a rabbit going to the circus without a ticket. Volunteers are recruited from the audience. The actor reads, reacts, and impersonates animals, as directed. He also ad libs, as the spirit moves him.

On a bad night this could feel like a collegiate theater class gone giggly. Luckily, Monday night’s show at the Anacostia Playhouse was deftly performed by veteran D.C. actor Michael Tolaydo. (The small, smart troupe Theater Alliance is presenting the show all season at various spots around town, with a new performer each time. The piece has been done around the world, performed by Juliet Stevenson and Janet Suzman in London, by Michael Shannon in Chicago, at Fringe festivals, etc.) Tolaydo clowned engagingly through the absurdity of the setup, channeling the author’s coy chat with the audience and always making it clear when he said “me” whether that meant Tolaydo, or Soleimanpour.

Tolaydo also sensed when and how the experience turns deadly earnest. It happens with a story about rabbits and social conditioning; the fable is short but vivid. At times, it’s chilling.

There is no director, and no design — just a table, a stepladder and two glasses of water, one of them supposedly poisoned. It’s an aggressively un-showy show, and it’s over in an hour, with a post-show discussion, if you like. But the metaphor that Soleimanpour extracts from this frisky exercise speaks volumes about how we behave individually and as groups, inside the theater and out.

Having an actor of Tolaydo’s openness and authority is plainly an asset, and it helps that 60 people in the Anacostia Playhouse made the place feel full. New performers will tackle this Dec. 8 and 15 in the same venue, and then “Rabbit” — which offers tickets at “name your own price,” or $15 for a reservation — will run into the new year at locations to be announced soon. Theatergoers who are game for a puzzle and a prick of the conscience will want to catch it.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

by Nassim Soleimanpour. Dec. 8 and 15 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. NE. About one hour. Tickets are name-your-own-price at the box office, or $15 for advance reservations. Call 202-241-2539 or visit www.theateralliance.com.

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