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Were the audience members who ran up on stage plants? Was the water really poisoned? Rather than find out, I think I'll let the final act's theme of "not knowing" linger a little longer.

Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ by Nassim Soleimanpour

As part of Singapore’s MI Fringe Festival 2015, Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit saw four different local actors take to the stage each night, to act out a script they opened for the first time only that night on stage.

With no director, and script unseen, the version this critic watched was performed by Pam Oei on the 22nd of January 2015 at the Esplanade.

Pam Oei
Pam Oei

The play examines several issues, and starts off with a skit about a circus and some animals. With extensive audience participation, the skit’s success at eliciting laughs was largely dependent on the people selected. The script instructed Oei to do an audience countdown, and then choose people by the number they received during the countdown. Lucky for us on this night, the ones chosen were game enough to superbly take on the characteristics assigned.

This “circus” part of the play felt repetitive, though, and when Oei was tasked by the script to re-enact what the chosen audience members had already done, it was her comedic skill that made us laugh despite the now-redundant story.

Without giving anything away, I can say that Soleimanpour has cleverly crafted a first act in which both actor-Oei and us-the-audience ‘obey’ his instructions without really processing what we’re really doing. Oei at one point even had to say racist slurs that the actress took in her stride and delivered with perfect comic timing. Whether in order to conform to the rest of society (society in this case being represented by those of us in attendance) or to avoid embarrassment, Soleimanpour did indeed make his point of “blindly following the masses” rather deftly with this first segment.

The second act, as this reviewer saw it, was the actual White Rabbit Red Rabbit story, quite literally. Soleimanpour tells a tale here about his uncle who had some white rabbits with whom he engineered an experiment, forcing them to compete for food. Whichever rabbit ‘won’ would be coloured red. However, what the uncle found was that the red rabbit was always attacked by the white ‘loser’ rabbits. Even when the ‘prize’ of food was taken away, the attack continued, thereby showing tendency of creatures – including people? – to learn aggression and perhaps hatred from the earlier generation, despite no longer having any real reason for those feelings.

Soleimanpour once again watered down the thematically astute and rather profound experience, however, by making Oei pick audience members to re-enact this portion too. Once again, this was unnecessary and redundant.

The third and final act of the play came in the form of supposed poison that Oei had an audience member stir into one of two glasses on the table. In a monologue in which Oei spoke as Soleimanpour directly, the writer warned us in ominous tones that we the audience would be implicit in a murder if we sat by and watched Oei drink the glass of poisoned water, as Soleimanpour had done his part by laying out the risk for everyone to know.

In the midst of this, something strange happened. Out of nowhere, Oei’s real-life husband, filmmaker Ken Kwek, yelled out “Fuck you, that’s my wife!”  Pre-arranged? We don’t know.

Oei is then told to stop reading the script, to leave it on the table, and for one of the audience members to take over the reading. The second Oei finished reading, before any one of us could react, Kwek came storming down the aisle and began reading the script, might I add after showing us a series of over-the-top ‘Acting Regretful 101’ facial expressions. Once again, pre-arranged? We aren’t sure. We don’t know.

Kwek soon read the last line, which instructed Oei to drink from one of the glasses. By this stage, the glasses had been switched around a few times, and even we didn’t know which glass carried the ‘poisoned’ water.

There was silence, amidst nervous chatter. Some in the audience told Oei, “Don’t drink it!” Some wondered with their friends what to do. Some simply sat and watched.

A lady I didn’t recognise walked down the aisle, like Kwek, with a determined look and did something which I won’t reveal that got the audience clapping and breathing easy for we got a conclusion we could all live with. Pre-arranged? Once again we didn’t know.

And I think that was what was captivating about the third act – for all at once, you felt implicated in a crime you never saw coming, felt nervous for Oei, and confused as to whether the poison was real or not.

A few years ago, I happened to get the opportunity to see two shows of magician David Copperfield, back to back. This was such an eye-opener for I saw the exact same people in the audience who were later called up on stage – both times! They were definitely Copperfield’s plants. And the magic was definitely lost for me.

One could easily ascertain if Kwek and the lady in the last scene were plants and were pre-arranged to react as they did, by simply watching another version of White Rabbit Red Rabbit to see if that actor’s friend or family intervenes as Kwek did.

But you know what? I’m not going to. I think this time I’ll let the magic of White Rabbit Red Rabbit and its final act’s theme of “not knowing” linger a little longer.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.

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