4 actors talk about preparing for 'White Rabbit Red Rabbit'

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — It was less than two hours before his show was to start and F. Murray Abraham said he was somewhat jittery. That was understandable: He hadn't learned a single line.

The stage, film and TV actor had — willingly — signed up to go onstage in front of a few hundred people and perform a one-man show without having seen the script beforehand.

"I have to tell you something: I have been kind of jumpy all day," said Abraham, an Oscar winner who recently starred in "Homeland" on Showtime. "It's the damnedest thing. There's no way to prepare for it, which is kind of fun."

The play he would perform is "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour. It requires no set or director and the actors don't read the script until they're onstage for the first time. Then they're asked never to perform it again.

The next afternoon, Abraham was still buzzing: "It was a terrific experience — just one of the best times I've ever had in the theater. I mean it." He called it a "true theatrical experience for all of us, simultaneously."

Abraham joined an illustrious group of actors who have tackled the work at the Westside Theatre, including Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, Cynthia Nixon, Alan Cumming, Martin Short, Christine Baranski, Andrea Martin, David Hyde Pierce and George Takei.

Josh Radnor, of "How I Met Your Mother," followed Abraham the next Monday. He acknowledged some nerves on the rainy afternoon before the show. "This is the actor's nightmare come to life," he laughed.

On Aug. 1, it'll be the turn of Ramin Karimloo, who played the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera" in London and Jean Valjean in the latest Broadway reboot of "Les Miserables." Karimloo said that after those big shows he was looking for something uncomfortable. "Boy, be careful what you ask for," he said, laughing.

"Ugly Betty" star Michael Urie is due to take his turn on Aug. 22. "Some actors don't like doing things cold. Sometimes I think the first time I do something is the best and I'm always trying to get back to that," he said.

Like Radnor, Karimloo and Urie, Abraham, too, said he resisted going online for clues about the play or reaching out to his acting friends who have performed "White Rabbit Red Rabbit."

"I decided to do it the way it should be done, which is cold," Abraham said. "I think part of the fun is not knowing." Karimloo also wanted to be utterly pure: "It's like 'Fight Club.' What goes on here you don't talk about it."

Soleimanpour wrote the play after being barred from leaving his native country because of his status as a conscientious objector. His play travels for him, connecting him to audiences around the world that he'll never meet.

The play, which skewers totalitarianism and celebrates artistic freedom, had its world premiere in 2011 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has since been performed across the world. Abraham said the play felt "so alive" and "extraordinarily well crafted."

Radnor, a free-speech advocate, said it was a welcome change to have the opportunity to help a playwright. "To be able to lend my voice to someone who can't have a voice at this moment is great," he said.

Karimloo, who was born in Iran, said he anticipates trying to have as normal a day as possible before his performance. "I'm just going to read this for the audience and then whatever happens, happens. That's my main thing: Don't overthink it."

Abraham also took that approach. He said he didn't do anything differently, although he said that he works out every day, which usually calms him. Not on this day.

"I can't stop moving," he said. "Maybe I should go and work out again."

After his show, Abraham joined "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" producer Tom Kirdahy and playwright Terrence McNally for a light supper. The topic of discussion: "White Rabbit Red Rabbit."

"I'm disappointed that I can't do it again but, of course, you can't do it again," Abraham said. "That's not the point. It would never work."




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