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Whoopi Goldberg was displaying an uncharacteristic trait Monday night onstage at the Westside Theatre: nervousness. And she had a right to feel it, as she had just been handed the script for White Rabbit Red Rabbit, an experimental solo play which she had never read before and about which she presumably knew nothing. Goldberg was about to embark on a theatrical high-wire act, and she made no bones about her anxiety.
Early in the proceedings, after an audience member shouted out a compliment (“You’re great on The View!”) Goldberg deviated from the script, graciously saying “Thank you,” before testily adding, “Don’t yell any more shit, because this is nerve-wracking.”
The 75-minute work was written by Nassim Soleimanpour, an Iranian playwright who at the time of its conception was subjected to artistic repression in his native country. (Happily, the program informs us that he’s now living in Berlin, with his wife and dog.) It’s been performed hundreds of times worldwide, including at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For this premiere NYC engagement, the work is being presented Monday nights, with each performance featuring a different star and no director. Goldberg is actually the second, following Nathan Lane; performers in upcoming weeks include Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy, Andrea Martin, Cynthia Nixon and Alan Cumming, among many others.
At the beginning of the evening, Goldberg was handed an ominous glass vial filled with white powder, which she was instructed to place near two glasses of water sitting on a small table. Although the script is obviously meant to be read verbatim, performers are encouraged to deliver asides and ad libs, as long as they make it clear when they’re doing so. Goldberg took liberal advantage of the freedom, although apparently not as much as Lane the week before.
“I digress, it’s me,” she said numerous times before offering comments. When the audience failed at one point to give her the desired enthusiastic response, she put down the script. “It’s me,” she said again. “I need a little more from you.”
There’s plenty of audience participation involved, beginning with, most tiresomely, a theater count in which each attendee shouts out a number in succession (for the record, there were 238 people present at the performance reviewed). At other times audience members are invited to take notes, keep time, snap posed photos and jump onstage to play designated roles.
Reviewers have been asked to reveal as little as possible about the play itself, for obvious reasons. But it doesn’t seem out of bounds to disclose that it’s extremely meta-theatrical, with the playwright often directly addressing the audience through his onstage messenger. He even provides his email address and asks people to write to him, promising to reply, “if I’m alive.” Suffused with animal allegories — rabbits are not the only creatures who figure in the scenario — and macabre elements (it took a quick peek of The View the next morning for reassurance that Goldberg was still alive), the piece is ultimately too obscure and diffuse to have the desired impact.
After a shaky start, Goldberg infused the evening with her sharp wit and strong personality, even if she did need the help of someone in the audience to correctly pronounce “Persepolis.” Ultimately, the show’s main interest will come from the inevitably very different experiences offered by the varied performers to come. Personally, I can’t wait to see it again with Martin Short.
Venue: Westside Theatre, New York
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg
Playwright: Nassim Soleimanpour
Presented by Maberry Theatricals, in association with Aurora Nova and Boat Rocker Entertainment
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