Nassim Soleimanpour has traveled the world without leaving his native Iran. Vienna’s Spektakel theater reserved a first row seat for the playwright, but it was empty during the performance of his maiden experimental play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit. Yet Soleimanpour was there.

To solve this riddle, it helps to know that during the first two years of the play’s worldwide performances, Soleimanpour was restricted from traveling as punishment for refusing to serve in Iran’s military. So he sent his words, the script of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, instead. He became a character, with the play speaking on his behalf. And puff! Without smoke or mirrors, he’s here.

Experiments in Reality

Devoid of Middle Eastern clichés, the play addresses themes of obedience, censorship and conformity in a semicomic and sometimes tragic way.

Profoundly experimental, White Rabbit Red Rabbit stretches the very definitions of theater and narration: With no rehearsals, no director and a new actor each night, the sealed script is only opened once the performer is on stage and in front of the live audience. This creates instant suspense, and the tension during Claudia Kottal’s show at the Spektakel on November 7 was palpable. But reading a script for the first time also makes bringing the words to life nearly impossible.

“There’s no way to prepare,” Kottal said. “Just be open for everything on stage. With all the skills I have as an actress – voice, body, emotion – that I can give to create a good reading.” Kottal remained calm and steady, and she raced through Soleimanpour’s play in 53 minutes. She focused on reciting in a clear and audible manner, which forced her to stand at the very edge of the stage, holding the pages between her and the audience.

The set is sparse, too: a table and a chair, two glasses of water and a ladder. Low production cost is an advantage for the small Open House Theatre company, but actor and creative director Alan Burgon, who had his turn on November 14, emphasized that it was the play’s unique style that compelled Open House Theatre’s artistic director Robert G. Neumayr to bring White Rabbit Red Rabbit to Vienna.

“[Founding member] Julia C. Thorne was blown away by a performance she saw,” Burgon said. “But it wasn’t until Robert G. Neumayr saw it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2016 that the decision was made to produce it. We love to try out different styles of show … we just had to go for it.”

Tear Down This Fourth Wall

Acting in the traditional sense falls to the wayside with Soleimanpour’s play. Non-conformist, wildly entertaining and occasionally absurd, White Rabbit Red Rabbit places itself firmly in the anti-authoritarian tradition of Beckett, Ionesco or Havel. Soleimanpour has often downplayed the play’s political implications, yet almost all of its allegories point to Iran’s lack of fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech or travel, which Westerners today take for granted.

And despite less-than-ideal conditions for actors, White Rabbit Red Rabbit triumphs through its blatant disregard for the fourth dimension, requiring almost incessant audience participation during and after the show.

Seeing it makes you want to read up on Iran and its regime, start your own activism group or intern at the OSCE. In a 21st century world of experimental storytelling, reality is as tragic and absurd as ever – and Soleimanpour wants you to face it. Now.

Dec 5 (Drew Sarich) & 14 (Lynne Ann Williams), Jan 16 (Ana Milva Gomes) & 21 (Tom Middler), 20:00, various locations. openhousetheatre.at