White Rabbit Red Rabbit tantalises without satisfying

(From left) Sani Hussin, Neo Swee Lin and Zhou Chongqing are among the cast of White Rabbit Red Rabbit.
(From left) Sani Hussin, Neo Swee Lin and Zhou Chongqing are among the cast of White Rabbit Red Rabbit.PHOTO: PINK ELEPHANT LABS

WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT

Nassim Soleimanpour

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

National Museum of Singapore, Gallery Theatre/ Jan 13

Consumers nowadays demand and devour reviews and spoilers before investing time and money on anything from food to theatre. Yet it is the mystery of what happens during White Rabbit Red Rabbit that adds piquancy to the performance.

As a sealed envelope is handed to the actor of the night, the first time she will encounter the play, pleased anticipation silences the audience at the National Museum's Gallery Theatre. The excitement sustains us throughout a one-hour play that continues to tantalise without ultimately satisfying.

Still, one understands the appeal of this play, restaged after popular showings at last year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

At the age of 29 Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour was denied a passport since he opted out of his country's supposedly optional military service. Not allowed to travel, he instead sent out White Rabbit Red Rabbit as his proxy. The actor who receives the play is strictly forbidden to do research and does a cold reading in front of a live audience.

On Wednesday, the actor was Maimunah Bagharib, better known as Munah, one half of YouTube comedy duo Munah & Hirzi. She performed the script in English. She will be followed by Neo Swee Lin, also in English. In obedience to the playwright's wish to have his work performed in different languages, Udaya Soundari will do it in Tamil while Sani Hussin performs in Malay and Dennis Chew in Mandarin.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit works as a heartfelt plea from a human animal trapped in his country and longing to connect with the outside world. However, as an exploration of the restriction of personal freedom, it is set up to fail.

By its very nature, theatre requires an audience to conform to a set of rules, to suspend some of their cynicism and play along. For a successful performance of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, the audience must agree that a 20something woman is actually a rabbit and must also slavishly follow the many directions the playwright has included in the script for audience participation. The play does not truly allow the audience to embody the playwright's feeling of rebellion and desire to break free of the artificial cage they set themselves in. They can at most leave the theatre - though none did for too long - but even as the script asks them to dissuade the actor from a course of action, it appears to have no instructions for the actor in case of a convincing plea from the seats.

Staging is minimal: a stepladder, a chair, water and a spoon, props which are again prescribed by the text. The choice of the Gallery Theatre also means that this performance, so dependent on the actor forging a personal connection with members of the audience, will grip those in the first few rows. The rest will find a Brechtian emotional distance from the action on stage, which I suspect is not what Soleimanpour hoped for.

The pre-requisite that the actor chosen for the performance must be innocent of knowledge about the play is another point where the play is too clever for itself. Not every actor is good at improvisation and some require greater familiarity with the text before they can ad-lib. Munah has a delightful and deeply likeable stage personality. Her emotional involvement deepens as she reads the text and she chokes and tears over the playwright's isolation. She evokes sympathy and pity as a rabbit trapped in a cage but she is never able to transcend herself and be the other thing that Soleimanpour demands: a guide into an odd wonderland where invisible rules tighten the wires trapping the audience in their seats and where one is never quite sure whether actor or director is speaking. For that one needs an actor with the ability to instantly immerse herself in a role - and certainly more stagings of this intriguing show.

book it

WHITE RABBIT RED RABBIT

WHERE: Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road

WHEN: Jan 14, 8pm, Neo Swee Lin (in English); Jan 15, 8pm, Udaya Soundari (in Tamil); Jan 16, 3pm, Sani Hussin (in Malay); Jan 16, 8pm, Dennis Chew (in Mandarin)

ADMISSION: $22

INFO: The performance has an Advisory 16 rating