Tampa Bay actors, audiences go down the ‘Rabbit’ hole

If you’re not familiar with “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” you’re not alone. The actors starring in American Stage’s current production haven’t seen or even read it, at least until they’re in front of a live audience.

The one-person show, playing now through Nov. 19 at venues throughout Tampa Bay, is performed by a different entertainer each night. They present it only once without a rehearsal, set or director in what the theater company calls “a theatrical journey into the unknown that holds endless possibilities each time you experience it.”

The experimental piece premiered in 2011 and became an Off-Broadway sensation by 2016, welcoming high-profile actors like Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Cynthia Nixon and more. It’s since become one of the most-toured plays in contemporary theatre, with actors and audiences alike sharing very little with the general public about what the plot entails.

“White Rabbit Red Rabbit” was written by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, who conceived the piece when he was barred from leaving his country for refusing military service. The playwright’s website calls it “a work about contemporary Iran and of Nassim’s generation born amidst the hardship of the Iran-Iraq war. A generation of computer-literate, well-informed young people who have never known an Iran other than the Islamic Republic.”

The show is the first production in American Stage’s “Beyond the Stage” series, which tasks audiences and actors with stepping “out of the theatre and into their own backyard to engage in new ways of storytelling.” It was announced earlier this year with “15 actors taking on the wild ride … taking audiences to places like a historic church, university, museum and warehouse.”

“This ingeniously written play charms you with its insight into captivity, conditioning and learned behaviors,” American Stage Producing Artistic Director Helen R. Murray said in a press release. “It is magical, surprising, and asks us to question how we think even more than what we think.

“And it does it while we are laughing and delighting at an incredibly entertaining piece of theatre,” she added. “I can’t wait to share it with our community, because the way it bonds an audience is unforgettably unique.”

The show opened Nov. 2 at St. Petersburg’s historic Savant on Second, where it also played Nov. 3 with Dylan Barlowe and Gavin Hawk, respectively. The show then moved to Tampa Nov. 4-5 at USF’s Tampa Theatre Centre for three performances starring Mona Lim, David Jenkins and Anthony Gervais.

The remaining productions are scheduled for St. Petersburg. “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” plays Nov. 9-10 at the Historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church with Georgia Mallory Guy and Fanni Green, and then Nov. 11-12 at The Factory with Ivy Sunflower, Tito Mercado and John Millsap.

It will move to the Warehouse Arts District Association’s ArtsXchange from there, starring Beth Gelman Nov. 16 and Lance Markeith Nov. 17. It final three shows are Nov. 18 and 19 at the Woodson African American Museum with Gabriel Ortiz, Andrida Hosey and for its final performance, Travis Ray.

The openly gay actor says closing the show is particularly thrilling for him. Unlike a regular run, where previous performances might influence the show’s final curtain call, he’ll be going in with a completely fresh perspective.

“I won’t know what has been done prior,” Ray says. “So the beautiful thing about it is when I go in, I’m going to give it every single thing that I have, without me second guessing myself. I’m going to explore, fall in love and present whatever happens in the script.

“I’m going to love on it as I go and just have the best possible performance I can,” he continues. “I don’t know how the script will be, but I’ll make sure that I pace myself, because that’s something else for a closing show that everybody gets excited about. I want to make sure that I take my time. Whatever words are on the page, whatever actions needs to happen … I’m going to give it everything I have. Go big or go home.”

Ray lives in Bradenton and has performed regionally in productions of “Dearly Departed,” “The Wiz,” “The Exonerated” and other shows. Much of his theater experience also lies behind the scenes; he currently teaches Acting at New College of Florida in Sarasota, where he also serves as Urbanite Theatre’s director of advancement.

“Because I mainly work in theater administration, performance is my fun time,” he says of partnering with American Stage. “It’s neat to reconnect with where I started, because my foundation is in acting and dance. When I get to perform a one-off thing like this, which I love, it allows me to reconnect to my humble beginnings.”

Ray says while he’d heard of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” which Urbanite also produced in 2017, he’d never seen it. As requested, he’ll go in completely blind.

“The audience will experience an artist who doesn’t know anything about the show,” he promises, noting he isn’t even familiar with the venue. “I don’t even know where I’m going to go when I get into the room. But I think that they should be open to taking and exploring the journey with me — I think that’s going to be the best thing about it.”

The production will also be the theater veteran’s first time leading a one-person show, something else that excites him.

“The audience will get a chance to see something organically manifest into a production with me as a vessel,” Ray explains. “It’s going to be up in the air, but I think that’s great because that’s where magic comes. Because I can create it in the moment, it will be organic, natural and true. That’s the thing that I love about it.”

Ray can’t see any of his fellow actors interpret “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” but says the show’s unique structure is perfect for audiences who are interested in doing so. “It will have a different flavor each night because it will be a different actor,” he notes, allowing them to see it before he closes on Nov. 19.

“Even the actors don’t know what you’re going to get, which puts the actor and the audience in the same space for once,” Ray says. “I think this is what theater should be moving toward — we should have more pieces like this that are exploratory.”

American Stage’s “White Rabbit Red Rabbit” plays through Nov. 19 at multiple venues throughout Tampa Bay. All performances are $30 General Admission. Learn more and buy yours at AmericanStage.org.

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