Out of Hand’s ‘Rabbit’ tests theatrical boundaries

In a manner of speaking, you could say that Out of Hand Theater is pulling another rabbit out of the hat with its latest experimental endeavor. Founded and built on the idea of thinking outside the typical theatrical box, the company’s previous projects include “The Break Up” (performed in an outdoor setting by two actors in a car) and “The Game” (prompting audiences on a scavenger hunt for clues to a puzzle).

For its latest trick, so to speak, Out of Hand’s “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” enlists what must surely rank as one of the greatest all-star casts in the history of Atlanta theater: Carolyn Cook, Veronika Duerr, Suehyla El-Attar, Richard Garner, Rhoda Griffis, Chris Kayser, Tom Key, Brian Kurlander, Harrison Long, Tim McDonough, Mary Lynn Owen and Googie Uterhardt, among many others.

If that illustrious gathering sounds too good to be true, well, it is. Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s “Rabbit” isn’t an ensemble piece. It’s a one-person monologue, specifically designed to be played by a different performer each night — off the cuff, without the benefit of any rehearsal, or even reading the script ahead of time. More than just playing a rabbit (which the actors also get to do in segments of the 80-minute show), they are more accurately playing guinea pigs, as it were, albeit for an ingenious cause.

“It’s an ideal vehicle that plays right into our mission,” notes Out of Hand co-artistic director Adam Fristoe. “What we’ve always aimed to do is create theater for people who aren’t being reached by traditional theater, those who might not otherwise go to see plays. We’re always looking for unique ways like this to engage and interact with an audience on a more intimate, personal level.”

As an added wrinkle, the venue also changes with each new actor. During the course of the “Rabbit” run — which began in early September and continues through late November, including some 30 performances in all — an equal number of shows will be presented in established theater spaces as will be done in private homes across the city.

That, too, Fristoe admits, is part of the plan. “It’s another really attractive thing about this piece, that potential to draw a really broad and diverse audience into the conversation that the play sparks. A lot of different venues mean a lot of different audiences, which means an even richer and more exciting experience,” he says.

All of the participating actors have agreed not to research Soleimanpour or “Rabbit” in any way prior to performing it. At the start of each show, they’re handed a sealed envelope containing the script and a letter of introduction from the writer outlining their instructions on how to proceed with the rest of the monologue. It is, in theater parlance, the ultimate “cold reading.”

Under the circumstances, it’s the least a newspaper reporter can do to play along, by not revealing any particular details of the script or ruining any of its surprises — because Fristoe also believes that the less viewers know about the show in advance, the more they’ll appreciate the spontaneous unfolding of it.

(Two minor spoiler alerts: There is audience participation involved, literally as well as figuratively; and there are also some serious and emotional passages dealing with Soleimanpour’s life in Iran.)

As Fristoe explains it, “In a conventional production, the actors have an upper hand over the audience, in a sense, because they know where the story is heading and the audience doesn’t. Here, (the actors) don’t have that advantage. The show’s crafted solely by the playwright, not by an actor or a director’s rehearsed or studied interpretation of it.

“In this show, nobody knows what’s going to happen and everybody’s in the same boat,” he elaborates. “From an actor’s standpoint, there’s a freedom in that communion with the audience. And, from the perspective of an audience member, that makes it a lot easier for them to feel like a real and active part of things. In either case, it’s all about living and being in the moment.”

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