Nassim Is An Awkward, Amazing Language Lesson – Review #36.1

In 2016 and 2017, I did successive one-time-only performance pieces that involved ultra-personal hour-long stories of my life being read out to me for the first time in front of an audience.

The first, dubbed “Nobody’s idea of a good time,” was a recording of my own voice I had made six months prior and never listened to. The second, “Nobody thought this needed a sequel,” was a cold read by someone I cast from Backstage – again, six months later.

This is the only existing image of the first. There is nothing from the second.

While looking for actors for the sequel, at least a half dozen people noted in their applications that the concept reminded them of playwright Nassim Soleimanpour’s show White Rabbit, Red Rabbit. I had never heard of it, but I was fascinated: Soleimanpour had written the show while he was unable to leave his home country of Iran because of his refusal to join the military. But he wanted his words to be told around the world, and he felt compelled to make a play that could be done without him there while making his absence clearly felt. It would be a show with no director or rehearsal; each night would be a new actor.

I was and am sad that I missed it – these auditions having been held just over two months after its New York run had ended – but there was nothing to be done about it, so I put it out of my mind. Until about a month ago, when I finally checked my auto-diverted “theater announcements” email folder and saw something about a show called Nassim. I didn’t realize immediately – but fortunately did before it was too late – that this was by the same man who made White Rabbit Red Rabbit, that this was the man’s self-titled follow-up to that show, and that it  had the same conceit of a new actor each night. I made it in right under the wire – during the last week of the run. And, fortunately, able to do so with an actor I like: Lee Pace – either Ronan the Accuser or Thranduil the Elvenking, depending on which kind of nerd you are.

Anyways, I’m here to talk aabout Nassim – the show but by extension the man (For clarity and also out of respect, I will say Nassim only when referring to the play and Soleimanpour when referring to its author and silent second player).

The set is minimal: on one side, a chair sits behind a desk, upon which is a box bearing the guest actor’s name. On the other side, a microphone stand. Between them, an X is taped on the floor. A projector screen is at the back.

The house lights rarely go down.

The show begins with a producer coming out and awkwardly introducing Lee Pace; she is reading a script and doing so poorly. It gives us the background – to Pace as well, since he knows exactly as much as we do and quite possibly less.

Nassim is 465 pages, we are told, which sounds like a joke, considering the previously announced 75-minute runtime. Also, it’s written in Farsi.

But don’t worry: It has been translated… mostly – though we’re not told that caveat.

The script, says the producer before departing, is in that box on the desk, easily big enough for 465 pages. But, there is just a single sheet. Clap, it tells Pace. And the projector turns on.

HERE, WE LEARN THE TRUE NATURE OF THE SHOW. A CLOSE-UP ON A STACK OF PAPER AND A PAIR OF HANDS. PACE WILL READ THE TEXT ON THE PAPER ALOUD. OR FOLLOW THE ITALICIZED INSTRUCTION. AND THE HANDS WILL MOVE ON. AT FIRST I THINK IT’S A PRE-RECORDED VIDEO SEQUENCE.

It’s not.

Performances of White Rabbit Red Rabbit left an empty seat in the front row to symbolize Soleimanpour’s forced absence. But with the show that bears his name, he is sitting backstage, directing with nothing but paper, a pen, and his hands – his confinement having ended in 2013.

It’s incredible how much can be expressed with so little.

Nassim is about language. And connection. And how language connects us. It was written in Farsi, but it has never been performed that way – indeed, it wouldn’t really make sense that way.

For us, it was in English, but Nassim has played all over the world in a variety of languages in the two years since it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe: Germany, Italy, Belgium, Chile, Korea, Japan, China – each in that country’s tongue.

But.

Farsi is not just the show’s original language – it is also a central focus. Many, many pages of the script are dedicated to the teaching of a simple story in a language that not-so-many Americans have probably even heard.

Yeki bood. Yeki nabood: Once upon a time. And if you think it’s weird hearing me stumble over those words after having several days to think them over, imagine Lee Pace flailing his way through his first time ever seen them. Or any of the other folks who did this.

That’s the show.

Though I know it showed in other languages, I can’t help but feel it’s most powerful in America and other English-speaking countries. Because even though most of us are asked to take a language in school, how many people really take that seriously? How many need to?

In 2015, I was taking an overnight train from Prague to Budapest. In my car was a couple: a Czech man and Hungarian woman. Yet they spoke to each other in English. Because English is the closest thing this world has to a universal language, something I was vaguely aware of but had never truly appreciated until I heard these two express affection in my mother tongue and not theirs.

People all over the world are raised at least bilingual – and even those who aren’t are endlessly subjected to, if nothing else, English-language media; they have a greater understanding and presumably appreciation for language than someone like me who can take his English for granted.

I don’t know if Lee Pace knows any other languages, but I can guarantee that many of the people who graced that stage over the months did not. And to see them struggle with this unexpected language lesson gives a profound sense of how everyone else in the world feels or has felt. At the very least, how Soleimanpour has.

Again, this has been performed all over the world. And at every performance he has asked the audience to give him an interesting word, one that he then adds to this global compendium. Someone recommends onomatopoeia, a word I have remembered how to spell since third grade because on-o-mat-o-poe-i-a; Pace misspells it, forgetting the fourth “o”; Soleimanpour shows us the book as he looks for the next open spot; words in Mandarin, Korean, German, Spanish. In English in all countries, we see how many others had given the same word – mostly with the same misspelling, because we are collectively failing this man.

He gets to New York, the only American city in which it’s played, and points out each instance of the most common word: Impeachment

Because that man is failing us.

Pace is asked to say and then define his favorite swear – in verb form, please. And we watch a grown man awkwardly shift around because he feels uncomfortable telling a room of adults what “fuck” means. Eventually, he comes up with just, ya know, “to fuck.”

And that’s what we’re all really here to see: thid guest actor struggling through the tasks given to him over these 465 sheets of paper by at first by a disembodied pair of hands and eventually Soleimanpour himself.

To me, the total visibility of the script is really what makes Nassim stand out: everything is on display; there are no tricks that the audience can’t see that the guest actor can. It guarantees a radically honest show and a radically honest performance.

My own cold read was not quite that. While the reader had indeed never seen a word of it, she went in prepared for the trick that we would both be playing on the audience. Early on, she would tell them that she was allowed to go off-book. She would then make an off-hand comment to prove it.

What only the two of us knew is that I wrote that comment. And all of her “improvised” asides.

This show was about revealing things I didn’t want to reveal but did anyway because capital-a Art; and to really get at the heart of the internal turmoil I was trying to convey, I had to lie to my audience of five.

Ya know, lying to tell the truth: the very heart of narrative storytelling

And there are likely some mistruths in Nassim for the same reason – a couple of staged moments feel like just that, but what goes on within the confines of this black box is an almost magical purity of performance unlike anything I have ever seen. I’m not even sure I want to call it a performance. Because performance here would imply that there’s something deeper beneath this real-time reaction. I have no doubt that Lee Pace expected to give a performance when he walked into the room, but I genuinely believe that we were just watching the man himself struggle.

I mean, if we weren’t, we would have gotten a better definition of “Fuck.”

Nine-Point-Two out of Ten

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