‘White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’ actors describe dramatic demands of singular performance

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 Actor David Morse paces the performance space at the Fringe Arts Building before his first and only performance of 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Actor David Morse paces the performance space at the Fringe Arts Building before his first and only performance of 'White Rabbit, Red Rabbit.' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The main conceit of “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” one of the curated productions of the current Philadelphia Fringe Festival, is that the lone actor onstage has never seen the script until he or she walks onstage.

The stage manager hands the performer a sealed envelope containing a script about 48 pages long, and the action commences. 

A different actor steps onstage for each performance; all have sworn not to prepare or research anything about the play.

The mystery of the work is one of the ways the audience and the actor bind together as everyone in the room is discovering this play at the same time. Playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, an Iranian writer who is restricted from leaving his home country for reasons explained in the play, wrote the script as a kind of archaeological document — a message in a bottle — which the actor and the audience together must decipher.

We shan’t break that shell — it’s fragile integrity must remain intact for the play to work — but we can gauge the anxiety and rewards of this play by visiting the actors backstage immediately before and after their performances.

Pre-show

David Morse (“Treme,” “St. Elsewhere,” “12 Monkeys,” “The Green Mile”): “Listen, I know a little about the man, as most people know. I think. The whole thing seems incredibly mysterious.”

K.O. DelMarcelle (2014 Barrymore Award nominee for “Emma” at the Lantern Theater): “I signed on to do this a few months ago. It was whim. I was at a dinner party … a few glasses of wine in, and then here we are.”

Brian Anthony Wilson (“The Wire,” 2014 Shakespeare in Clark Park’s “Henry IV”): “Just to be open to what comes. One of the biggest tools an actor has is to listen and be present. This is a perfect chance for that, to be as present as I can be.”

DelMarcelle: “The closest thing this feels like is, a few months ago, I did stand-up comedy for the first time. That was really scary. That level of anxiety is where I’m at right now. I’m right there. Yeah.”

Wilson: “Little nervous. I have a little thing of Champagne. A little sip.”

Morse: “The circumstances of this playwright are very compelling, living in a country where he is either not allowed to express himself, or be very careful about how he expresses himself. … I also think it’s an adventure. I just like the adventure of it.”

Post-show

Wilson: “I feel drained.”

DelMarcelle: “It was really cool. I haven’t done anything like that before. It moved me. I wasn’t expecting to be moved. It was really powerful, in a fun way. That’s hard to do.”

Morse: “I almost wish I wasn’t an actor. I wish I was more raw. It would be interesting to see it with people who are not actors, who do not have a facility for being up there on stage.”

Wilson: “I didn’t nail it. No. I would have done things differently, but you don’t have that luxury. I just hope I served the writer’s intent. There is no director, just the writer’s words and me. And the audience.”

DelMarcelle: “Nassim Soleimanpour is aware of how the actor is feeling, and is really empathetic and created a situation in which you can’t fail. If you show up, you can’t fail.”

Morse: “I want to — most actors want to bring as truthfully something to light as you can. At the end of the day you’re always limited by ‘It’s still me.’ You know, it’s me in this body; I’m not truly that person. I truly wanted to have him represented. But he’s done it in such a theatrical way, it gives permission for it to be theatrical, to be an actor.”

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