White Rabbit Red Rabbit : Theater outside the box

Poster courtesy of Shoot The Moon Theater Company

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BRATTLEBORO — Don't let the name of Shoot the Moon's bold undertaking of "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" at the Hooker-Dunham Theater fool you. It may or may not be about rabbits; in fact, not even the actors know what it is about until minutes before they go on stage when they are handed the 90-minute script.

"White Rabbit Red Rabbit" is an internationally acclaimed one-person play written 8 years ago by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour after his passport was revoked when he refused to participate in the required military service. Press materials are careful to point out that his intention for this work is more metaphorical than political, with the goal being "a work about contemporary Iran" and its "generation of computer-literate, well-informed young people who have never known an Iran other than the Islamic Republic."

Reflecting its contemporary subject matter is the unusual request to leave cell phones on during the performance.

Other performers who took on the challenge have included Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Cynthia Nixon, George Takei, Rachel Dratch, and Alan Cumming.

"This is Soleimanpour's message in a bottle. Although it's not a cry for rescue, rather it's a cry for community," said Joshua Moyse, the artistic director of Shoot the Moon Theater Company, the company in residence at the Hooker-Dunham Theater. "This play is funny and poignant, and one of its joys is seeing how the different performers approach the work."

Abiding by rules set by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour mandating "no rehearsals, no director, no set," four different actors in four separate evenings of one-person performances bring their unique take. The four actors start with Rebecca Waxman on Friday, Sept. 20; Robert Kramsky on Saturday, Sept. 21; Evan O'Sullivan on Friday, Sept. 27, and finally Marilyn Tullgren on Saturday, Sept. 28. Alistair Follansbee is the stage manager.

"I tried to find performers with somewhat different backgrounds to bring their own sensibility to it.' Moyse said. "Robert Kramsky is a traditional performer, Marilyn Tullgren has a music background, Evan O'Sullivan has improv experience, and Rebecca Waxman straddles them all. No one had to audition, they are all recognizable. It's a treat for the community because each actor has a tie to this community and local theater,"

The rules are strict. The actors can only perform the play once, watching other actors' performances of the play before their own is not allowed (they can, however, watch those shown after their own), and, of course, no reading the script with its rigid guidelines on how it can be performed beforehand.

"The actors are not even allowed to research the play," said Moyse. "They get two pages of directions with some advice from the playwright about 48 hours prior to the performance. That's it!"

"None of these are my rules," Moyse added.

O'Sullivan, who has known Moyse since childhood and was one of Kramsky's Brattleboro Union High School drama students, comes back to town from Boston every year to see Shoot the Moon productions. He said Moyse has been slowly presenting experimental theater to Brattleboro without alienating the audience.

"I agreed because I did a lot of theater with Josh in the past such as 'Pinocchio,' 'Skin of Your Teeth' and I've been blown away by other past productions there, like `Nixon's Nixon,'" O'Sullivan said. "Theater is a one-time experience, Josh is bringing that, Rabbit is an experiment on that. Written by an Iranian with performances done in New York City, it sounded like a worthy experience and it made sense for me because I'm not in the area and I can't attend rehearsals. My only regret is that I won't be able to see Bob Kramsky's performance since it is before mine."

When Moyse first asked him, O'Sullivan said he had to pull the phone back so he wouldn't shout "YES" in Moyse's ear.

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That reaction wasn't shared by the other actors.

At first, Kramksy was hesitant. It is risky, he felt, going against everything actors are used to doing. While he thinks it may be improv with which he is pretty comfortable from his work with the Vermont Theatre Company, he doesn't, however, know what to expect; maybe it is reading, or narration, speculating that it is not a drama, nor a tragedy.

"You hope that what you do is entertaining. I'm nervous but excited. I don't think the bar is set too high, knowing it will be pretty spontaneous. This is not of political strife, I'm assuming. While there is a script, it is up to me to make it come to life while keeping it true to the playwright," Kramsky said.

"It is exciting fun," Kramsky said. "It is a risk but a challenge, that interests me."

Tullgren's reaction to Moyse's invite was a bit more impassioned. "Trepidation ... intriguing yet terrifying, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into."

She said she didn't feel she was especially good at doing improve, but hopes her stage presence will help her.

"I really don't know what to expect, if my music background will be of help. It is all off the cuff, we are all excited about that. All I know is it was written by an Iranian playwright who was not allowed to go out of his country. Will there be audience participation ...? I'll be screaming into the woods!" she joked. "We'll see how it goes. I guess this is the most zaniest thing I have ever done, but I trust Josh."

Waxman's response was almost as fierce, "It is intimidating, to say the least," she said. "I had heard about the play in reviews but was amazed at how very little was given away, it is an unspoken rule to keep mum."

As a mother and full-time teacher at the New England Youth Theatre, she was also enticed by the lack of rehearsal times, time she doesn't have these days.

"My initial reaction was it is scary. I really don't know what to expect," she said. "As an exile, I'm sure what the playwright has to say will be important and worthwhile."

"We need to do things that scare us." Waxman finished. "It's a gamble. If one doesn't take gambles it's not worth living."

Every night will be different but repeat audience members can draw comparisons. To that end, Shoot The Moon is offering a special $35 ticket price to attend all four performance nights, Sept. 20, 21, 27, and 28, 7:30 p.m. at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, 139 Main St. Tickets for individual shows will be $15. Advance tickets can be purchased at shootthemoontheater.com. Reservations may be made at 802-451-0523.