Audacious theatrical experiment 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit' plays in Orlando

David Lee (seated) in 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit' at Penguin Point
David Lee (seated) in 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit' at Penguin Point Photo by Seth Kubersky

Here's a critic's conundrum for you: How do you review a play when you aren't supposed to reveal what it's about?

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, the audacious theatrical experiment by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, has been performed everywhere from Edinburgh to Broadway since its 2011 premiere, attracting famous actors as diverse as Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham and Orlando's own Wayne Brady. But although it's one of the decade's most buzzed-about shows, you'll probably never hear a discussion of its dialogue or plot. That's because actors are only allowed to unseal the script once they've stepped onstage for their first – and only – performance: Performers are forbidden from playing the role more than once, and audiences are admonished not to reveal what they've witnessed.

As you can imagine, these rules – which would be gimmicky annoyances in the service of a less interesting subject – make White Rabbit, Red Rabbit a literal embodiment of the archetypal actor's nightmare, in which you're thrust in front of an audience without knowing your lines, although at least here you have the text in hand. But the restrictions are equally stressful for a journalist, who is left with the conundrum of covering three of the five of the W's – who, where and when – while dancing around the most important two – what and why.

"Actors are only allowed to unseal the script once they've stepped onstage for their first – and only – performance

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So, I can tell you that the Ensemble Company brought this acclaimed enigma to Oviedo's Penguin Point Productions ( last weekend, boasting an all-star lineup that included John DiDonna, Beth Marshall and Roberta Emerson. But I hesitate to say too much more about the opening night I attended, which starred Orlando Fringe lifetime achievement award winner David Lee, lest I let the bloody bunny out of the bag.

This much I can reveal: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is not a work of narrative entertainment so much as it is an interactive dialogue between the author and the audience about the intersection of artistic expression and authoritarian control. Imagine the Milgram Experiment being conducted on the cast of Watership Down by Vizzini from The Princess Bride, and you'll have an inkling of what's in store (or maybe not). Soleimanpour raises uncomfortable issues about obedience and conformity, and his show earns a trigger warning with discussions of guns and suicide, but the writing is also rich in whacked-out imagery and wry humor. That made Lee an ideal intermediary, as his dry, rapid-fire delivery proved a perfect counterpoint to the surreal and sometimes self-indulgent script.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was produced and directed (as much as one can direct a show with zero rehearsal) by Matthew MacDermid as part of the Ensemble Company's ( debut season at Penguin Point Productions' venue inside the Oviedo Mall. The company, which MacDermid describes as "theater for adults, by adults," is next presenting the area premiere of The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess in September, followed by James Goldman's The Lion in Winter and a double bill of David Sedaris holiday one-acts: Season's Greetings and The SantaLand Diaries.

"My goal is to have a repertory company in residence here," MacDermid told me after the show. "I came from a summer stock background, so I have always loved the thought of a small group of actors playing multiple roles during a season."

The Ensemble Company joins the Young Company and Still Got It Players in sharing Penguin Point's 80-seat stage, which is only a small portion of the 8,000-square-foot facility. When I last wrote about Penguin Point proprietor James Brendlinger, he was saying farewell to his longtime home of Lake Howell High School at the 2018 Play-in-a-Day. He says that after the event, a parent of a former student encouraged him to start his own theater; then a former Lake Howell administrator pointed him to the Oviedo Mall, which has seen a distressing number of shuttered retail storefronts, but also a surge of new entertainment offerings.

Brendlinger says, "When I came into the mall office and told them my idea, they just lit up, and here we are." He proudly shows me around his space, a former Pet Rescue by Judy shelter that's been fully renovated. The facilities house the expansive Penguin Point Productions costume and prop shop, which has served many a local production. Kay Gonzales, former owner of Madge Elaine's World of Entertainment, is coming aboard to manage the collection. There's also an extensive script library where screenwriting classes are held, and a rehearsal hall with a clever DIY sprung dance floor supported by pool noodles.

Penguin Point Productions will focus on what Brendlinger calls the "Four C's": camps, classes, costumes and community theater. But it's also branching out with monthly coffeehouse nights, starting on Friday, Aug. 30, with musician Xander Dillman-Meyers.

"Things are positive," Brendlinger concludes. "Starting a new business for anybody is challenging, but I can't imagine having more support than I'm getting from people here."

This story is from the Aug. 14, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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