OK, class, settle down.
Let us begin with a concept that you may not have heard of: meta theater. Or, if you prefer, metatheatre. Sounds impressive. Sounds important. But like so many abstract concepts that have entered more general usage, defining it doesn’t require as much intellectual rigor as creativity.
For our purposes, let’s just say that it’s a kind of self-referential theater that remarks on its own reality. Think of a play that doesn’t really tell a conventional story but draws theatergoers on a given night into the creative act by insisting on their participation.
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” is such a play, and Kansas City audiences have been seeing it for the first time in a succession of unique performances at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station. The piece was written by Nassim Soleimanpour in 2010. Soleimanpour, an Iranian, wrote it as a sort of intellectual protest because he had been forbidden to travel outside his country after refusing to serve in the military.
He has said in interviews that the idea was to write a play that could travel the world without him, and that is precisely what has happened. The one-actor show, first staged at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, has been performed around the world.
“It has been in Brazil, it has been translated into Kurdish, it’s going to be performed in Egypt,” Soleimanpour said in a 2013 interview with the BBC as a production was just getting underway in Newcastle in northeast England. “It has been translated into Korean, Chinese, French, it was in more than 10 cities in Canada, Colchester, London, now Newcastle.”
After an eye exam revealed that he was unfit for military service, Soleimanpour at last received a passport from the Iranian government and was able to travel. But he has not rewritten the piece, and it remains, on one level, a meditation on freedom and choice, or the lack thereof.
The play stipulates that a different actor perform the piece each night without having read it beforehand. Actors call that a cold reading, and it requires them to connect with the playwright’s words as the performance unfolds. The actor at times selects members of the audience to join him or her onstage, per the playwright’s instructions. The audience hears vivid metaphors whose meaning may not be clear, either in the moment or by the next day.
And as the evening concludes, the audience is instructed by the playwright’s words to leave the theater as the solo actor lies face-up on the stage after having seemingly faced a life-and-death decision.
The run at Union Stage is being performed under the banner of KC Fringe Presents, a new initiative from the annual summer arts festival. Once a year, according to the plan, KC Fringe will present a performance piece that originated at a fringe festival somewhere in the world.
“Our initial focus is shows that originated at Edinburgh,” said Cheryl Kimmi, executive director of KC Fringe. “As we grow, we also then want to remount some of the shows from KC Fringe that we think have great potential. We want to help them get to the next level.”
Performances of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” began March 5 and continue through March 30. The performers are an eclectic mix of professional actors, fringe volunteers, lawyers and arts administrators — including Harlan Brownlee, president and CEO of ArtsKC, and Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library.
The actors receive a set of instructions 48 hours before the performance telling them to be prepared to imitate an ostrich, among other things.
“Oh, man!” said actress Heidi Van the day after her Monday night performance. “At first it was scary. And then it was really surreal to be both the playwright and the actor at the same time and taking instructions as you were reading them.… The script was scored in such a way that it wasn’t just a bunch of words. And it was a complicit act with the audience. I felt safe once I realized that everyone was with me and we were in it together.”
At Van’s performance, one member of the audience — Coleman Crenshaw, an actor — was among a group Van called to the stage to participate in a sequence about rabbits and carrots. But later, as the performance neared its conclusion, Crenshaw inserted himself into the action by walking onstage and removing two key props. (Sorry, to say more would give too much away.) The effect was to add another philosophical conundrum to a play that had already established itself as a brain-teaser.
“Coleman was involved,” Van said. “He was all-in as a spectator.”
Performing a script she had never laid eyes on was understandably stressful, but Van felt moved by the experience.
“You know me — I’m very excited about theatricality and the impact of live theater,” she said. “It was an honor to be saying those words for that playwright. Now I want to know: Where is that guy? What’s he doing? And let him know what a wonderful, outrageous theatrical experience it was for me.”
At each performance the actor requires the spectators to assign themselves a number, beginning with No. 1 on the front row and then working back until all of the viewers have been counted. Then the script requires the actor to call audience members to the stage, not by name but by number.
“It was by far one of the most interesting cold readings I’ve ever done,” said actor Forrest Attaway, who performed the show during its first weekend.
His wife, actress Amy Attaway, turned out to be No. 5, who came to the stage and followed instructions to pour an unidentified white powder into one of two water glasses.
“And the person who ended up being the White Rabbit was my stepfather,” Attaway said. “For me, I think I had a little bit more fun with it. It was very amusing to me to have my wife poisoning the water.”
“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” continues through March 30 at the H&R Block City Stage at Union Station with the following lineup of performers: Brother John Anderson, Sunday; Tara Varney, Monday; Phil Kinen, March 26; Harlan Brownlee, March 27; Vi Tran, March 28; Crosby Kemper III, March 29; and Carla Noack, March 30. Performances begin at 7 p.m. For more information, go to KCFringe.org or UnionStation.org.