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WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT opens the theater season with a fresh look and a super meta play.   

THE BASICS:  WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT, a one-actor play by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by The Alleyway Theater, opened on September 9 and runs for four weeks through October 2, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 at 1 Curtain Up Alley, Buffalo NY 14202. Curtain Up Alley connects Pearl Street with Main Street and follows the backstage wall of Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Individual tickets $42. Under 30: $30. Visit alleyway.com or call 716-852-2600. Both masks AND proof of vaccination required (see their website for details).

Runtime: about 70 minutes (but performances could go 90 minutes), no intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT is a one-person play, where a different actor each night is presented with a script, sealed in an envelope, on stage in front of the audience.  The play begins with the actor answering three questions: “Have you seen the script before?” NO “Have you seen the play before?” NO “Have you acted in the play before?” [Anthony Chase, appearing on September 9, feigning exasperation] NO!  The actor opens the envelope and reads? performs? self-directs? the play.

There is no director. The actor is free to follow the stage directions in the script as he/she/them sees fit.  Last night the actor was Buffalo theater critic, Buffalo State professor, host of Theater Talk on local NPR affiliate WBFO, and co-founder of the Artie Awards, Anthony Chase.  The sold-out audience was packed with Chase fans and whether performed regionally or on Broadway, having revered actors on stage seems to be one of the selling points of the play, in whatever market it’s in.

Following Chase, in the cast for their one performance each are (in alphabetical order) Todd Benzin, Melinda Capeles, Charmagne Chi, Don Gervasi, Peter Horn, Victoria Pérez, Darryl Semira, Norm Sham, Joyce Stilson, Alexandria Watts, and Brandon Williamson.  Note: The actors are strictly forbidden from seeing the play before their scheduled evening as well as participating in any future productions.  To see which actor will be on stage each evening, see below or visit www.alleyway.com.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:

WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT was the first play to open this September and opening night felt very festive as it had to serve in lieu of the annual CURTAIN UP! celebration, minus the black-tie dinner and the block long party on Main Street.

Alleyway lobby pre-mural

While Alleyway Artistic Director Chris J Handley apologized to the audience that the venue did not yet have its liquor license, Chase reminded everyone that Matinee, the “official” bar of the Theater District, did have a liquor license and invited everyone to meet there after the show.  Buffalo Rising (this digital publication you’re reading right now) added some glamor including red-carpet interviews with audience members.

The theater looked better than ever, with new doors along the alley, and a stunning giant mural in the lobby by Audra Linsner, the muralist winner in a competition that came with a $6,000 prize.  It paid tribute to the original use of the building as a Greyhound Bus Station.  Judge for yourself with the before and after photos.

Another “oooh, there’s a new sheriff in town” moment came when entering the main stage theater where a shiny new set by Scenic Designers Christopher Swader and Justin Swader lit by Lighting Designer Emma Schimminger really popped.  The stage of the Alleyway, like the lobby, was transformed.  And it was good.

Bare stage before opening

In his playbill bio, the actor on stage that I saw on my night, Anthony Chase, mentions only a few roles he has performed, but not mentioned are his annual performances as co-host of the Artie Awards (think Tony Awards for Buffalo).  Anyone who’s seen him in that role knows the man is the master of the sideways glance, the subtle double take, and that he is expert at moving things along.

But, as other critics have found, it’s impossible to talk about this play’s specifics without giving too much away. 

But, as other critics have found, it’s impossible to talk about this play’s specifics without giving too much away.  But it is a “meta” play in both terms of metaphysics (defining reality and causality) and metatheater (aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theater).

RANDOM THOUGHTS: As I watched I was reminded of David Byrne and The Talking Heads lyrics in terms of odd juxtapositions of ideas that challenge us to think outside the box.  I thought of Tony Kushner plays and their tackling big questions of life and death as well as Thornton Wilder’s OUR TOWN with those same big questions not to mention the actual step-ladder on stage (the traditional prop of the “Stage Manager” role).  And I thought of Buffalo’s Torn Space Theater and their edgy plays, so any Torn Space fans, you should check this one out.

Anthony Chase
Anthony Chase

Note on my rating:  While of course any time spent with Anthony Chase is a “five star” experience, and this certainly was, the fact of the matter is that if you are going to see the play, it will be with somebody else on stage.  The “Four Buffalos” rating (“Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend”) is based on the play, not the player.  Looking at the cast list, and based on their past performances, I can personally recommend any of the other nights.  In fact, I plan to go again (and there is a discount if you do that, too.)

Note on parking: The touring company of Disney’s FROZEN has started a two week run in the 3,000 seat Shea’s Performing Arts Center, so you might add a few minutes extra to your travel time.

According to the Alleyway, the play, never before seen in Buffalo, is a worldwide smash hit, having been performed thousands of times in more than 20 languages since its premiere in 2010.

“It’s the true meaning of one-night-only,” says Artistic Director Chris J Handley. “RABBIT is a play about obedience and power. It asks the audience to question our surroundings, beliefs, and reasons for following rules, following advice, following the pack. It basically says, ‘Everyone is jumping off that bridge. The question isn’t do you or don’t you join them, but are you even able to make up your own mind?’”

Sounds vaguely political doesn’t it? Whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, for decades we’ve all seen one side or the other portrayed as mindless dupes. That’s why the playwright and his agents require the following disclaimer in all press releases:

“URGENT: All media and press agents: This play is NOT overtly political, and should not be portrayed as such. It operates on a deeper, metaphoric level, and very expressly avoids overt political comment. We therefore ask the press to be judicious in their reportage.”

Okay. We can do that.  And, speaking of press releases, the Alleyway informed us that: “Soleimanpour wrote the play while in exile in his home country of Iran, where he was a conscientious objector to the government mandated military service requirement. Stripped of his passport, he wrote the play so his words could travel even if he could not. WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT is a large metaphor, investigating what happens when we are free to make our own choices and what happens when we aren’t.”  Handley continued: “It’s funny, it’s serious, it’s daring, it’s full of surprises … it’s everything great theatre should be.

THE SCHEDULE

Each actor will perform the play only one time. Once someone has seen the play or performed it, they are never allowed to perform it again – anywhere – so, every night is an opening night.

Anthony Chase             September 9
Alexandria Watts          September 10
Darryl Semira               September 11
Melinda Capeles           September 16
Victoria Pérez               September 17
Todd Benzin                  September 18
Peter Horn                    September 23
Don Gervasi                  September 24
Joyce Stilson                 September 25
Charmagne Chi             September 30
Brandon Williamson   October 1
Norman Sham              October 2

MORE ON THE PLAYWRIGHT

As provided by The Alleyway Theatre: “Nassim Soleimanpour is an Iranian playwright, theatre maker and the Artistic Director of the Berlin based theatre company Nassim Soleimanpour Productions. His plays have been translated into more than 30 languages and performed globally in over 50 countries. Best known for his play White Rabbit Red Rabbit, written to travel the world when he couldn’t, his work has been awarded the Dublin Fringe Festival Best New Performance, Summerworks Outstanding New Performance Text Award and The Arches Brick Award (Edinburgh Fringe) as well as picking up nominations for a Total Theatre and Brighton Fringe Pick of Edinburgh Award. White Rabbit Red Rabbit had a 9 month Off-Broadway run casting celebrated actors like Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Martin Short, Bobby Cannavale, Wayne Brady, F. Murray Abraham, Cynthia Nixon among other notables.

“Nassim’s second play Blind Hamlet commissioned by the London based Actors Touring Company premiered at The LIFT 2014 and has toured in the UK and was received well in Edinburgh, Bucharest and Copenhagen. His third play BLANK premiered in November 2015 simultaneously in Amsterdam, Utrecht and London and so far has been performed in the UK, Australia, Spain, Mexico, US, Argentina, India, Finland, Denmark, Canada, and etc.

“His most recent play NASSIM produced by the Bush Theatre in London was premiered in August 2017 and won a Fringe First Award followed by more than 300 shows in 12 languages across the world. NASSIM had a successful five-month Off-Broadway run featuring celebrated American actors like: Michael Shannon, Zachary Quinto, Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Kate Walsh, Carla Gugino, Cory Michael Smith, Kathey Najimi, Richard Kind, Reed Birney and others. NASSIM won the 2019 Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Unique Theatrical Experience.

“Soleimanpour’s recent play DOWN BY THE CREEK was published by New York Times as part of America 2024. He’s been commissioned to write a new play for the audiobook platform Audible.”


Lead image: L-R Brandon Williamson, Victoria Pérez, Melinda Capeles, Darryl Semira, Joyce Stilson, Alexandria Watts, Don Gervasi, Anthony Chase, Charmagne Chi, Norman Sham, Todd Benzin, Peter Horn | Photo credit Stephen Gabris

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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